New Duluth Boutique Hotel in Old City Hall Brings Hope for Struggling Downtown

The Inn is named after famous Duluth architect, Oliver Traphagen, responsible for many of Duluth’s buildings still used today.

DULUTH, Minn.- As downtown businesses continue to pull themselves up through labor shortages and safety issues, officials say the arrival of a new boutique hotel, the Oliver Inn, is a light on the horizon.

The Old City Hall building on East Superior Street is getting a new look and new life as the Oliver Inn.

“I think each experience that a person’s going to have each time they show up is going to be unique,” owner Rod Raymond said.

Ramond, who also owns the Rathskeller speakeasy beneath the building, Fitger’s Brewhouse, Burrito Union, and Endion Station Inn, said all permits are taken care of. He’s just waiting on parts for thermostats, held up out west.

The Inn is named after famous Duluth architect Oliver Traphagen who is responsible for many of Duluth’s buildings still used today.

“This is a nod to Oliver, but it’s also a nod to Duluth’s rich history,” said Raymond. “We think back 120, 130, 140 years ago, what was going on in this building? I mean J.P. Morgan walked up these steps.”

It features 13 rooms on 3 levels, each with its own vibe for guests.

The upper floor’s 7 rooms each have their own unique flair, with common areas, one with a bar.Img 20211109 155216

There are small bits of history to be found at every corner. For example, an antique Diebold safe door leads guests to a smaller, intimate room within one of the common areas.

“The 7 rooms up here all custom-made, custom-designed using locally sourced, regionally sourced antiques and furniture of the times,” said Raymond.

The street level’s two rooms share space with Wasabi restaurant and sleep 4 people each.

The lower level — hostel style, with shared bathrooms and a private sauna. “That’s what makes this funky and unique.”

“Kayak on the roof, mountain bike on the back, you’re going to be able to afford those rooms downstairs so it makes Downtown experience easy,” Raymond said.

According to the owner, preserving old architectural elements like the high ceilings, original City Hall room doors, and the wainscoting is what will keep Duluth authentic and on the map.

“If you look at an old building and say because the business of, the business in the building was, was C-, just wasn’t cool, then you think the best thing you can do is tear down the building,” he said, “We got to change the mentality.”

“You can have your opinion about a business, but these old buildings are what makes Duluth rich and cool,” said Raymond.

And marketing Downtown to newcomers is sorely needed right now. “I think we’ve seen a bit of an increase in the amount of people down here, but it has been a slow return,” said Kristi Stokes, President and COO of the Greater Downtown Council. “And I think we will continue to move forward and come out stronger.”

“We expected more of a return in the summertime and I think that’s been a little bit of a slower return,” Stokes said. “We expected a little bit more after Labor Day and that’s been slower.”

According to Stokes, the climb out of the pandemic hole has been a long one for downtown businesses

“We have seen since the pandemic we have seen that increase like many communities around the country an increase in homelessness, of addiction issues and just mental health issues,” she said.

That’s why the Greater Downtown Council added a social services outreach worker to their Clean and Safe Team, she said.

Raymond hopes increasing traffic Downtown can help make the area feel safer and more enticing for businesses and customers.

“If you do a, kind of a retail type business like a hotel where there’s 40 people walking in, spending the nights walking around Downtown, spending money we start getting more of those going in this neighborhood, then all of a sudden we see more of the coffee shops and the boutique businesses popping up around it,” he said.

Once the Oliver Inn is ready to go live, Raymond said it will be available as an Airbnb as well as through traditional hotel booking options.

“Boutique hotels in the U.S. are new, the trending is new,” he said, “nowadays with these other platforms such as Airbnb and these different platforms you can use, gig economy platforms.”

Stokes believes investment in downtown spaces, like the trendy boutique-style hotel, spreads the message of a brighter future.

“I think it’s just really important to be able to see property owners investing and reinvesting in the downtown, new investment taking place, that just builds a stronger downtown,” she said.

And according to Raymond, “I think Duluth’s on the verge of a renaissance,” and he hopes the whole Historic Arts and Theater (HART) District will benefit.

“Let’s keep the history, let’s restore old buildings, let’s support the arts, the NorShor Theatre, and others let’s make this a district where people can collaborate, collect and enjoy themselves.”

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