January 30, 2015

Duluth, Minnesota's Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery

Tycoons Alehouse exterior

photo by: Tycoons Alehouse

Tycoon's Alehouse sits in the fully restored 1889 Duluth City Hall.

While its collection of trout streams, mountain bike trails, and ski hills -- not to mention one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the globe -- have made Duluth, Minnesota an outdoorsman's utopia, the city of some 80,000 isn't lacking in history either.

Take its 1889 city hall.

The building now hosts the popular Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery. Back when it was built, Duluth was a mind-bending blend of blue-collar, immigrant frontiersmen, and reportedly saw as many as 700 immigrants a day. Most were Scandinavian, Irish, and Czech.

Many ended up logging in Minnesota’s north woods or working the Iron Range -- the largest such deposit in the country. During WWII the area produced much of the steel for Allied warships and weapons, as well as dozens of millionaires who made fortunes off their labor. The streets may have been as muddy as the winter was long, but the buildings? Many were beautiful.

Tycoons Alehouse main bar

photo by: Tycoons Alehouse

Tycoons' main bar.

Duluth and its extraction economy were peaking in late 1880s, and since the original wooden version had burned with much of the rest of the city in years previous, the new city hall was built of local brownstone and brick.

The Richardsonian Romanesque beauty was designed by Oliver Traphagen, who would later leave for warmer climes and build the famous Moana Hotel in Hawaii. Before the jail was completed next door -- and likely for a while after -- the sub-basement contained a cell to hold the frontiersmen who couldn’t hold their liquor.

That sub-basement is now the Rathskeller -- only part of the Tycoons Alehouse, which just won Growler magazine’s best beer bar in Minnesota for 2014.

Brad Nelson, the marketing director for Fitger's Brewhouse, which owns Tycoons and supplies its award-winning beer, describes the Rathskeller as a place to “sit down and have a conversation with people and enjoy a really good drink.” They specialize in high-end bourbon, whiskey, and other, often rare, craft brews. As for the décor, the Rathskeller is entombed in arches of bluestone.

“... Even as we use these buildings in different ways, there’s still a thread of history that runs through them. And after a while, I think it does take on something that feels like a soul.”

Brad Nelson, Marketing Director for Fitger's Brewhouse

“Someday we’ll probably put art on the walls, but we really haven’t been in a hurry because it’s such a cool-looking room,” Nelson says.

But the Rathskeller only sits below part of the building. The rest is a crawlspace leading to tunnels that spider out under the city. The system still brings steam heat to much of downtown Duluth from a waterfront plant fed by coal from Great Lakes freighters, just like it did in the old days. (There are also plenty of rumors about the tunnels being used in the days of Prohibition.)

Up two levels is the main dining room, or the supper club, if you prefer. The main focus is on the entrees. And why wouldn’t it be? With an effort to continually tap in to more local, seasonal food supplies, including pork, grass fed beef, and fish -- like walleye from our friends just north of the border -- the grub is probably just as good as the beer.

After a new city hall was built in 1933, the building was used as a storage warehouse for an electrical company and hosted a number of small businesses like a music store and a framing gallery. But when Tycoons moved in roughly four years ago, they invested $2 million to bring the place back.

Music on the main floor at Tycoons Alehouse

photo by: Tycoons Alehouse

Tycoons hosts a steady stream of live music.

They worked with the Duluth Preservation Alliance on redeveloping the space, which means while they did have to remove many of the offices on the main level, the entry corridor, walls, stairway, banister, and wooden floors are all original.

“Most of the building, we managed to work around what was here and just make a unique layout,” Nelson explains. “In all cases, it wasn’t what you’d ideally do for efficiency and the kitchen and all that, but of course the end result ended up being more funky and interesting and cool.”

Much of the décor is local turn-of-the-century photography with a focus beyond the traditional extraction economy of the times.

Above the main dining room are the old city council chambers, and offices, including the old mayor’s office. Some of them remain offices for the restaurant, while the rest are private dining spaces with views of Lake Superior.

The mayor's receiving room at Tycoons Alehouse

photo by: Tycoons Alehouse

The mayor's receiving room.

But as great as Tycoons Alehouse is, it’s not the only old building Fitger’s Brewhouse has fixed up in town. The beer itself is made in a pre-Prohibition brewhouse, and they’ve recently opened another brew pub on the north side of town (which locals actually refer to as the east side of town) in a historic train station.

“We really care a lot about this town and historic preservation is a big part of the leadership here,” Nelson says. “The respect for the craftspeople and the people that came before us, even as we use these buildings in different ways, there’s still a thread of history that runs through them. And after a while, I think it does take on something that feels like a soul.”

Location: 132 E. Superior St., Duluth, MN 55802

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m. - 1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m. – 1 a.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.

You’re having: Drink local. Drink Fitger’s. Oh, and try the beef.

Best Yelp Review: "OMG THE FISH!!!!"

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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