Taking a walk through downtown Duluth, you get the feeling that many of its buildings would have long stories to tell. One of those historic tales might come from the old brick structure on the corner of Lake Avenue and First Street, which once housed the Dreamland Ballroom on its upper level.
The ballroom sat dormant for a decade after a fire nearly destroyed it in 1972. But in 1982, the owner of the Corner Lounge - the ballroom’s downstairs neighbor – restored and reopend the upper level.
Ray Johnson sits in the Dreamland Ballroom, a portion of the building he owns and is trying to restore to its appearance in the 1940s. (1982 file / News Tribune)
The building was constructed in 1911 as the Coffin Dance Studio and Boston Music Center, a musical instrument business. It was also home to the fraternal organization the Odd Fellows. As the Dreamland Ballroom, the venue had its heyday in the 1940s, when it was used as a dance hall.
Johnson hosted similar events as owner of the venue – a Halloween dance and a New Year’s bash to ring in 1982 – but somewhere between that year and 1989 the ballroom was sold to Patty Jo Olsen. She also worked on renovating the space and brought bands such as the Gear Daddies and Minneapolis punk rockers Babes in Toyland to the venue.
In this 1989 file photo, Patty Jo Olsen, owner of the Dreamland Ballroom, sits in the space she’s working to remodel as a live music venue. In a 1992 News Tribune article, Olsen said, "We’re trying to build a live music venue like no one else in town is offering."
In the 1990s, the Shish Ka Bar had set up shop below the ballroom, which still was hosting events – concerts, fashion expos, Super Bowl parties. But its rowdy downstairs neighbor was giving the building a reputation that invited trouble.
The Shish Ka Bar at the corner of Lake Avenue and First Street is often referred to as one of Duluth’s roughest taverns. (1997 file / News Tribune)
A January 1998 article about signs of urban decay along First Street, "The Shish" was referred to as the place where the down-and-out went to drink and was called one of Duluth’s roughest taverns. The article also said it’s "the kind of place that doesn’t take checks and hires bartenders strong enought to throw rowdy patrons out the front door."
The Shish Ka Bar closed in May 1998 after its owner said he grew tired of dealing with the establishment’s unruly clientele. In January 1999, a fire that officials labeled as arson caused $100,000 worth of damage to the vacant bar and the ballroom upstairs, closing the venue for good.
A Duluth firefighter climbs onto the roof of the vacant Shish Ka Bar and Dreamland Ballroom under the moon during a fire at the corner of Lake Avenue and First Street. (1999 file / News Tribune)
But this story does have a happy ending. In July 1999, an architectural firm – Damberg, Scott, Gerzina and Wagner - invested $1.3 million into the building to renovate it into offices that it would later move into. And in a 2002 News Tribune article about efforts to improve Duluth’s Old Downtown, the building’s renovation was called "the brightest success so far on First Street."
Read more about the Shish Ka Bar fire below:
Janury 24, 1999
FIRE DAMAGES SHISH KA BAR BUILDING
Fire and smoke swept through a vacant downtown Duluth landmark Saturday evening but firefighters quickly contained the damage.
The building that housed the now-closed Shish Ka Bar and the upstairs Dreamland Ballroom was spotted to have smoke billowing from a rear window shortly before 6 p.m. Saturday.
The two-story brick building at the corner of Lake Avenue and First Street has been vacant since spring. Fire crews had the fire extinguished within minutes of receiving the call, but put out hot spots in walls and floors for an hour or so after.
Fire investigators said early indications are that the fire started on the first floor in the rear of the building.
"We’re going to do a thorough investigation when the smoke clears," said Assistant Fire Chief John Strongitharm. He declined to comment on what may have caused the fire.
Mike Drozdek, the building’s owner for the past 10 years, stuffed his hands deep in his pockets as he stood on First Street, watching firefighters battle the blaze.
Drozdek said the fire was not the only time his building was damaged Saturday.
He said a taxi slammed into the wall earlier in the day on the First Street side, leaving a gaping, six-foot hole in the storefront. Drozdek nailed up some plywood to cover the hole and left that same afternoon.
"I thought it would be OK until tomorrow," he said.
Strongitharm said when his crews arrived, that portion of the building appeared to be secure.
Drozdek closed the Shish Ka Bar on May 15, saying he was tired of trying to control his tavern’s unruly clientele.
"A lot of people didn’t like that," he said of his decision to close.
Police long had regarded the Shish Ka Bar as a gathering place for some of the city’s toughest customers.
Drozdek said he worked with police to try to keep out that element, but nothing worked. And after a while, he just gave up.
Instead, he was going to open a carry-out ribs joint in the Shish Ka Bar storefront. That plan never materialized, he said Saturday.
The building at 2 W. First St. was mostly empty at the time of the fire, but Drozdek said he was setting up for an auction to sell the remaining contents and, eventually, the building.
That’s all changed now. He’s not even sure if he’s insured for this type of loss. He also doesn’t know what he’ll do next.
"I don’t know," he said. "I don’t know. Who knows?"
January 25, 1999
DULUTH POLICE SAY CAUSE OF FIRE AT SHISH KA BAR BUILDING SUSPICIOUS
Duluth fire officials have determined that the fire that damaged the Shish Ka Bar building in downtown Duluth on Saturday night is suspicious.
Investigators said an incendiary device was used to start the fire, indicating the cause likely was arson. They also say the fire caused $100,000 in damage.
But they are saying little more.
"All I know is that the fire marshal has determined it to be suspicious in nature,’ said Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mattson. Mattson also said reports indicate the fire started near a utility area. Crews on the scene said it appeared the fire started on the first floor toward the rear of the building.
The building, at the corner of Lake Avenue and West First Street, housed the now-closed Shish Ka Bar and, upstairs, the Dreamland Ballroom.
The bar closed May 15 following unsuccessful efforts by its owner and the Duluth Police Department to rid it of unruly clientele. A plan to reopen the bar as a take-out rib joint never came to fruition.
January 30, 1999
SKYWALK, BUILDING FIRE CLUES ELUSIVE
Duluth fire investigators probing two suspicious fires from last weekend say any solutions in the cases are still "a ways off.’"
Fire Marshal John Strongitharm said the Jan. 23 fire at the Shish Ka Bar, 2 W. First St., remains under investigation. Samples of burned materials from the bar fire were collected this week and sent to a lab for further study, he said.
Investigators also said they are making progress in an investigation into several fires set in the skywalk system last Sunday, pursuing "promising leads.’
Fire investigators suspect arson at the Shish Ka Bar because they could find no other explanation for how the fire began. The bar had been closed for building and fire-code violations for several months and was for sale at the time of the fire. The bar had also been struck by a cab earlier in the day.
Damages to the building were estimated at $80,000 for repairs and cleanup, Strongitharm said.
The Dreamland Ballroom upstairs also suffered water damage and firefighters cut several holes in the floor to locate fire that may have extended upward from the bar below. The building had been near to being sold just before the fire, Strongitharm said.
The bar could not reopen until the coffee shop next door can be brought up to code, as well as the sprinklers that must be installed in the basement, Strongitharm said.
"The building is in limbo,’ Strongitharm said. "I don’t think the fire is going to impact the sale.’
As for the once-grand Dreamland Ballroom, Strongitharm said, "the building needs some loving care.’
Investigators working on the skywalk fires, including the most severe blaze, over Peterson Anderson Flowers, are interviewing suspects.
Sept. 22, 1999
SUSPECT REPORTEDLY CONFESSES TO TORCHING SHISH KA BAR
Duluth police and fire investigators are seeking charges against a Duluth man who apparently confessed to setting the Shish-Ka-Bar on fire in January.
Assistant Fire Marshal Forrest Williams said Tuesday that the suspect’s name would not be released until charges are filed.
Duluth police did not know when reports would be ready to send to the St. Louis County Attorney.
"The case is still pending. We have a confession and it will be handed to the county attorney’s office for prosecution,’ Williams said.
Fire investigators knew from the beginning that the fire was arson. There were no electrical or other mechanical sources for the fire that caused $100,000 in damage to the vacant building, Williams said.
Samples from the fire scene, as well as witness interviews and suspect interrogations led investigators to the suspect within a month of the Jan. 23 blaze, Williams said.
The Shish-Ka-Bar was a well-known downtown bar before it closed in 1998. For years, police regarded the Shish-Ka-Bar as a gathering place for some tough customers. Search warrants and police records show the bar was a focal point for drug dealers.
Its owner, Miko Drozdek, admitted he was fed up with the often troublesome clientele when he closed the bar in May 1998. He tried to keep the space active, inviting a recovery lounge to start up next door so people could have a have cup of coffee instead of another alcoholic beverage. And Drozdek tried to open a carryout ribs joint in the storefront at Lake Avenue and First Street.
Now the building is undergoing major renovations by its new owners, the Duluth architectural firm of Damberg, Scott, Gerzina and Wagner.
"The building is being renovated and restored for professional offices, our architectural firm will be moving over there when it is completed,’ said partner John Scott.
Built in 1911 as the home of the Coffin Dance Studio and Boston Music Center, a storefront musical instrument business, the building is rich in historic architectural value, say its new owners.
Scott said his firm admired the detailing that went into the building and wanted to retain that. The firm also wanted to be near the new Technology Village being built across Lake Avenue from their new offices.