Duluth Commercial Club/Athletic Club

The Duluth Commercial Club photographed ca. 1915 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

402 West First Street | Architects: Bray & Nystrom | Built: 1908 | Extant (Duluth Athletic Club)

By 1908 Duluth’s Commercial Club, a reorganization of the Chamber of Commerce, enjoyed a membership exceeding one thousand and had outgrown its quarters in the Frerker Block. So a group of its members formed the the Commercial Building Realty Company and purchased a lot at the southwest corner of First Street and Fourth Avenue West. The Commercial Club agreed to lease the building for ten years if its top two floors were finished to its specifications. Technically called the Commercial Building, everyone referred to it simply as the Commercial Club. William Bray and Carl Nystrom designed a four-story commercial building that stands three stories high along First Street. Originally faced in red brick, the building contained limited ornamentation, including a prominent Roman-arch recessed entrance along Fourth Avenue East trimmed in rusticated stone, decorative brickwork, and ornamental elements at the corners of the top floor that provide the feel of the then burgeoning Prairie Style of architecture.

The Club’s second-floor quarters included administrative offices as well as a kitchen and a main dining room that could seat 250, a separate women’s dining room, several small private dining rooms, a women’s parlor, and a men’s lounging and reading room. The third floor contained the club’s assembly room, a large billiard and pool room, and a row of fourteen sleeping rooms. The first floor included retail storefronts along First Street and offices in the back, first rented by Duluth’s Water & Light Department. The Commercial Club used the facilities until 1925 when the group moved into the Hotel Duluth; by then it had reorganized again, returning to its original name: the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.
Architect Harold St. Claire Starin remodelled the entire building in 1938 as the home of the Duluth Athletic Club, covering up much of its original brickwork with buff-colored stone panels to provide it with an Art Deco façade. Members enjoyed workout facilities, a gymnasium, courts for various sports, two billiard rooms, sleeping rooms, a kitchen, and several dining rooms. In January 1943 fire severely damaged the building, but the club remained there until 1976.

Between 1976 and 1994 the building hosted Duluth’s most popular restaurant, the Chinese Lantern, along with its companion business, the Brass Phoenix nightclub. The Lantern was first opened in the WEBC Radio/Palladio Building at 401–403 Superior Street (1937–2015) by Wing Ying Huie, the eldest son of the legendary Joe Huie, proprietor of his eponymously named café in the Metropole Hotel. Over the years the Lantern’s clientele included Vice-President Walter Mondale, Pearl Bailey, and Elvis Presley. Another fire in 1994 gutted the restaurant, and it never reopened. The building later housed a restaurant called the Duluth Athletic Club and the 1909 structure is called the Duluth Athletic Club today.