Hotel Duluth (aka Greysolon Plaza)

A postcard of the Hotel Duluth published in the 1950s. (Image: Zenith City Press)

When it first opened the hotel also offered a variety of guest amenities, including a men’s barber shop operated by E. R. Lade and a women’s beauty salon—Harper’s Shop—was run by Margaret A. Rose. It had its own postal telegraph station, O. E. Dahle’s cigar and magazine shop and a flower shop operated by Lester Park Greenhouses. Ladies could purchase apparel at Schonz and gentleman could find a new suit at Harold A. Berquist’s store. Eva Hooker Drake sold antiques. And if you suffered from an ailment, George Kermott and A. L. Maimo ran the Duluth Pharmacy Co. from a storefront on the southeast corner of the building.

The hotel also became home to the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, which set up offices, a lounge, and a private dining room in the building’s west wing. The hotel even had an “official” parking garage, the former Duluth Auditorium at 302 East First Street. Guests could leave their car in front of the hotel, and an attendant would drive it to the garage. When the guest needed the car, the attendant was summoned to drive it to the hotel’s entrance. If they preferred a taxi, Yellow Cab had a permanent stand outside the hotel.

The Hotel Duluth first opened for guests on May 8, 1925. George H. Crosby, called “the father of the Hotel Duluth,” was the first to sign the register, Walter Schroeder the third, and architect H. W. Tullgren next. Dinner parties were held in both the English and Moorish rooms, with Schroeder exclaiming that, “This is the most beautiful hotel lobby in the country and Duluthians should be proud of this institution. The hotel is a great civic project and should have the support of every man and woman in the city. The people have been clamoring for a new hotel for many years and now they have an institution that compares with the best in the country.”

The Herald called the hotel “Metropolitan” and said that it has the “typical atmosphere of the east.” The paper went on to describe the building as “a bit of New York transplanted to the Northwest. … From the lobby to the 14th floor Hotel Duluth is essentially metropolitan.” It was compared to other grand hotels in the U.S., including New York’s Commodore and Roosevelt and Chicago’s Blackstone.

The building’s organizers scheduled a lavish two-day celebration for May 22 and 23, 1925, inviting 400 couples that included delegations from the Iron Range, Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The Duluth Symphony Orchestra, directed by Fred G. Bradbury, played in the lobby throughout the event. The dinner menu included hors-d’oeuvres Moscovite, hearts of celery, mixed olives, pecans, cream of fresh mushroom chantilly, paupiette of sole marguery, roast squab, potatoes Gaufrette and other delicacies. After dinner the Lyceum Ballroom Orchestra, directed by Frank Mainella, and the Ben Miller Orchestra provided dance music.

Throughout its life as a hotel the building had many fascinating visitors, but none more notorious than the 400-pound black bear that followed a fish truck into town before smelling breakfast at the hotel coffee shop in 1928. He burst through the plate-glass window in search of a snack and was killed by a Duluth police officer. In honor of the bruin the coffee shop was transformed into the Black Bear Lounge after the repeal of Prohibition. Unfortunately for the bear, he was stuffed and mounted and placed inside his namesake bar.

None of the hotel’s other visitors had to be shot to get them to leave. Over the years the Hotel Duluth played host to performers, princes, and presidents. Pearl Bailey and Liberace stayed in the hotel when they were in town to perform at the Armory. Actors Henry Fonda, Charles Boyer, and John Carradine all made the hotel home when in town. Crown Prince Olaf stayed in the hotel in 1939, when he was in town to dedicate Enger Tower. But the hotel’s most famous guest was President John F. Kennedy, who stayed in the hotel just two months prior to his tragic death 50 years ago this coming November.

The president was in town to drum up support for reelection the following year. He arrived at the Duluth International Airport on the afternoon of September 25 and immediately boarded a helicopter for an appearance in Ashland, Wisconsin. He then returned to Duluth and rode in his limousine—the same one he would sit in the back of in Dallas, Texas, on November 23—to the Hotel Duluth. The motorcade included Senators Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy and then Attorney General Walter Mondale. That night he gave a speech on conservation to the Great Lakes States Region Land and People Conference gathered at UMD’s physical education building (now the Romano Gym). His talk was followed by a reception in the hotel and a dinner for White House correspondents and other traveling journalists.  The President’s entourage took over the entire 14th floor of the hotel. The president departed Duluth by 8:30 the next day (Read Jim Heffernan’s recollections of JFK’s visit here.)

In 1976 artist Sachio Yamashita proposed painting a giant Lady’s Slipper, Minnesota’s official state flower, across the entire back of the hotel, facing a then-empty lot between the alley and First Street. Long-time Duluth News-Tribune and Herald columnist (and Zenith City contributor) Jim Heffernan wrote about Yamashita’s plans, which included an alternative if the Lady’s-slipper idea was rejected: a feather positioned diagonally across the building. The Japanese artist told Heffernan he viewed the entire city of Duluth as a canvas and would like to paint “other Duluth buildings or any structure that looks drab.” He had done it previously, in Chicago, turning a three-story building into “Mount Fuji Behind the Waves Off the Coast of Kanagawa.” Apparently the Duluth hotel’s management didn’t like either idea, and it was never painted.

By the time Yamashita’s plans were nixed the hotel had been in decline for some time. The advent of less-expensive hotels and motels made grand hotels like the Duluth a novelty for the wealthy, and the owners had a hard time filling the guest register. The upscale shops and services within the hotel had long since closed, replaced by Romano’s Gift Shop, King & Queens Style Cutter, and offices for the Kiwanis Club and various building trade unions. The Hotel Duluth could no longer survive as a hotel. But what could one do with such a grand building built for so specific a purpose?

A 1979 study suggested the best idea for reuse would be to convert the hotel’s 450 guest rooms to 150 apartments for seniors. Bowman Realty purchased the property and went ahead with the renovation, estimated to cost $5 million. When it was complete, the Hotel Duluth was renamed Greysolon Plaza. The Chinese Garden opened in the former hotel’s restaurant, and Romano’s moved from the second floor to the southeast corner of the first floor and became Romano’s Grocery. The building’s Black Bear Lounge was closed, and much of the hotel’s furnishings were sold off. The stuffed black bear was purchased by Andy Borg, who placed it in his Grandma’s Restaurant in Canal Park. The lounge reopened briefly in the 1980s, but soon closed. In 1993 the hotel’s famous lobby was used in a scene of the film Iron Will, which was mostly shot in Duluth.

Sherman & Associates of Minneapolis, who built Duluth’s Sheraton Hotel across Third Avenue from the Greysolon, purchased the historic hotel, announcing renovation plans in 2006. Sherman & Associates obviously thought highly of the 1925 hotel: the Sheraton’s design is reflective of the Hotel Duluth’s, with three towers and canopies over each entrance. Under Sherman’s ownership, the building’s ballroom and Moorish room have been renovated, and the space that once held the Chinese Garden and Black Bear Lounge is now the home of Blackwater’s Martini Bar, operated by the same group that owns Duluth’s Blackwood’s restaurants.

It was reported that Sherman eventually plans to convert at least some of the building’s upper floors into hotel rooms. Meanwhile, the developer has taken on the task of renovating Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre, across the parking lot from Greysolon. The city has already provided a skywalk across Third Avenue East to the hotel that is planned to link with the NorShor and eventually span Second Avenue East as well.

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