The historic Kitchi Gammi Club is improving its front yard.
The 106-year-old landmark clubhouse at 831 E. Superior St. is undergoing an entrance upgrade that includes plans to improve an east lawn overlooking Lake Superior. The two-phase, $500,000 project broke ground in May.
Kitchi Gammi Club General Manager Leanne Joynes said the new entrance will be wheelchair accessible, create a new front terrace and restore space that was once used for an English garden. She said the new outdoor area will be designed to accommodate weddings and other large gatherings.
“We’ve actually done outdoor ceremonies out there before on the grass and it has a beautiful view of the lake,” she said.
The project will highlight the club’s location, historic architecture and the monumental elm trees planted in the space more than 100 years ago. Joynes said the trees are the oldest elms in North America.
“There are some interesting historical things about the club that make it really cool,” she said. “We’re doing everything kind of original. We’re part of the Duluth Preservation Alliance, so the plans to redo that area were run by a historian and approved before we started any work.”
Minnesota Historical Society Executive Council member Dennis Lamkin, also a Duluth Preservation Alliance member, served as an independent historical resource for the project. Lamkin said club members have shown great interest in preserving the historical integrity of the building and its grounds.
“The work that’s currently underway is being done exceptionally sympathetic to the original architecture,” Lamkin said. “But it will also allow the club to be accessed easily by people with mobility challenges.”
Lamkin said the new ramp entrance with a canopy will be installed off Ninth Avenue at the site of an existing entrance. A new stairway leading down to a grassy front yard area will be installed with future plans for lawn and garden improvements.
The area was originally home to a formal English garden.
“This project doesn’t include the restoration of that formal garden,” he said. “That will be happening at some point when the construction work is done and we can go back and put lipstick on everything.”
According to its website, the Kitchi Gammi Club was formed by business leaders and prominent community members on Oct. 1, 1883. It is the oldest incorporated club in Minnesota. After meeting at several different Duluth locations, the current clubhouse was constructed on Superior Street between 1911 and 1913. It opened on Jan. 1, 1914.
The clubhouse was designed by Bertram Goodhue of the New York City architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson. Original landscaping was drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers, a firm operated by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City and widely considered the father of American landscape architecture. The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Lamkin said Turn-of-the-Century lumber baron Guilford Hartley, who oversaw clubhouse construction, used Goodhue and the Olmsted Brothers for several projects. Goodhue also designed St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1710 E. Superior St., and the Hartley Office Building, 740 E. Superior St.
Lamkin said the designers were some of the top architects in the country at the time.
With the building’s long and storied history, Joynes said she keeps waiting for construction workers to find a surprise. “I keep thinking we’re going to dig up something cool out there soon,” she said.
Gardner Builders was hired for the construction work. Foundation improvements are being completed on the east end of the building and outer retaining walls are being reconstructed around the green space. No artifacts have been found yet.
“It’s exciting,” said Joynes. “It was scheduled for this summer before any of the COVID stuff happened. But we’re still going through with it and it’s due to be done at the end of August.”
Joynes said maintaining the historic clubhouse has been a membership priority for years. Club members established a foundation to collect money and help finance building projects.
Lamkin said the nonprofit foundation is critical to preserving an important piece of Duluth history.
“The club was important for so many people for many, many years,” he said. “People would leave requests to have it restored and have it preserved which I think is really kind of nice.”
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