Warner House aka The Birches

The exterior of the Warner House—the former Spalding House—at 2319 Woodland Avenue. (Image: Elden Lindamood)

2391 Woodland Avenue | Architects: Edwin Radcliffe & Vernon Price | b. 1908 | Extant

Newspaper articles in 1908 and 1909 printed numerous stories about the homes on Second Street from Fourth to Sixth Avenues West which would have to be relocated or demolished for the construction of the 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse. Many of the houses were homes of influential Duluthians, including Captain Alexander McDougall, D. G. Cash, A. M. Miller, A. D. Thomson and William Spalding, all of whom had built impressive homes along Second Street.

Spalding is perhaps best known as the namesake and chief stockholder of the Spalding Hotel, once Duluth’s grandest hostelry at Fifth Avenue West and Superior Street, across from A. M. Miller’s Lyceum Theatre. Spalding and his wife Electra had moved to Duluth from Ontonagon, Michigan, in 1869. Their home in Ontonagon was dismantled and shipped to Duluth where it was rebuilt at 504 West Second Street.

Spalding was an early Duluth alderman and president of the Iron Range Railroad. By 1888 the Spaldings replaced their early home with a grand brick Queen Anne Victorian house with a tall corner tower on the Second Street lot. The address was changed to 129 North 5th Avenue West in 1892. William Spalding died in 1901, but Electra was still living in the large home when it was determined to be moved or demolished for the courthouse. When we wrote Lost Duluth just two years ago, we believed it had been demolished. But this past month we discovered that the May 17, 1908 Duluth News Tribune ran a sketch above the headline, “HOW THE SPALDING HOME WILL LOOK WHEN REBUILT.”

The subsequent article announced that A. L. Warner had purchased the Spalding home from the county and would move it to “Woodland Park” to be rebuilt. A sketch by architects Edwin Radcliffe and Vernon Price accompanied the story. That drawing closely resembles the present house at 2391 Woodland Avenue, but looks a far cry from the house that stood on the present site of the courthouse. So the Spalding house had not been demolished. Like the Spalding’s Michigan home, it was likely dismantled and moved to the Woodland address. But once there it was reassembled in a completely different design, probably with additional new materials.

The home’s new owner, Amos L. Warner, had lived in Duluth with his wife Harriet since 1886. He was a successful real estate man with interests in timber and farming lands. A building permit granted in April, 1909, for Harriet Warner states that a brick building would be constructed in Woodland Park for $7,500. That’s roughly $190,000 today. This is a further indication that additional materials were needed to turn the Spalding house into the Warner home. Carpenters were able to reuse most of the woodwork that was inside the Spalding home. The main entrance still has the address “129” etched in glass above the door.

The Warners and their children lived in the red brick, two-and-a-half story house with elements from both Second Renaissance Revival and the Prairie School styles until 1921. During that time Warner was elected to the Minnesota State Legislature and served from 1913 to 1915. By 1921 Warner had moved to Minneapolis, taking a job as president of the Bankers National Bank. The Warner’s marriage had likely ended in divorce: Harriet did not go to Minneapolis with her husband and instead moved in with one of their daughters in Montana. Warner remarried and died in Minneapolis in 1945. Harriet moved to Seattle at some time and died there in 1938.

The Duluth News Tribune ran this sketch and description of how the Spalding House would look after it was dismantled, moved, and rebuilt in Woodland as the Warner House. (Image: Zenith City Press)

When the Warners left Duluth, the house on Woodland Avenue was sold to Hiram and Catherine Elliott. He was president of West Duluth’s Elliott Packing Company, once the largest meat processing concern in the region. When the Elliotts left the house in 1932, it stood vacant until 1936 when Dr. Lawrence R. Gowan Sr. purchased it. Gowan was the first psychiatrist to work at Duluth hospitals, beginning in 1926 at St Mary’s Hospital.

Dr. Gowan planned to establish a rest home for individuals suffering from conditions such as “neuritis, insomnia, nervous exhaustion, loss of appetite, high blood pressure with headaches, and fatigue.” He sought a home with “quiet, pleasant surroundings” an opportunity for outdoor and indoor recreation, with “types of massage, baths, light treatments and electricity,” according to the description of the rest home he submitted to the Duluth Board of Zoning Appeals. Dr. Gowan specifically stated that the property would not care for mental patients. He would call his sanatorium “The Birches Health Resort.”

Duluth architect Harold St. Clair Starin designed a 1935 remodel of the Warner home according to Dr. Gowan’s vision. Starin created eight bedrooms, three bathrooms, a library, a sun room, and a sun porch in addition to the living room, kitchen and dining room. The rest home opened in 1937. In 1938 Dr. Gowan hired Starin again, this time to remodel a two-story log cabin for The Birches caretaker’s home. (The cabin was on the property when Gowan had purchased it, but we can find no records of its construction). In 1942 the building’s name was changed to The Birches Sanitarium. It closed in 1958. Gowan continued to treat patients in private practice until he retired in 1975.

By 1965 George and Eva McKenzie lived at 2391 Woodland Avenue and attempted for several years to get permission to open a rooming house for students at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Finally in 1968 they succeeded and opened The Birches Rooming House for twenty-one students. UMD students lived in the Warner house until 1990. At one point there was a fire inside the home. The owners had the charred woodwork replicated so that the repair work maintained the interior’s architectural integrity.

Since the house closed as student housing it has been a family home. The current owners have worked with Duluth architect Elden Lindamood since 2000 on an extensive remodel. With Lindamood’s design, Duluth’s Better World Builders have made extensive renovations to the house, including turning the 1909 porte-cochere into an enclosed music room.

Because of several additions and remodeling, the house at 2391 Woodland Avenue likely vaguely resembles the house Marilyn Borell’s mother stayed in when she was a patient at The Birches. And William and Electra Spalding wouldn’t recognize it.