August 29, 2005
The Buena Vista motel-lounge-restaurant along Skyline Parkway in Duluth, August 2005. (Bob King / News Tribune)
BYE-BYE, BUENA VISTA
SADNESS AND PROGRESS MERGE AS A LANDMARK RESTAURANT AND MOTEL CLOSES TO MAKE WAY FOR CONDOMINIUMS
Duluth News Tribune
All summer, loyal customers flocked to the Buena Vista for one last gaze at Lake Superior or for one more plate of sweet potato breaded walleye.
They also came to say goodbye.
After more than 40 years, the hilltop motel-lounge-restaurant, with its windows so large the dining room resembled an air traffic control tower, was closing for good. The motel checked out its last guests eight days ago. The restaurant and lounge will pour its final taps and serve its last plates of crepes and sweet potato chips in September.
"Do I hate to see it go? Absolutely. It’s a very nice place," said Bob Magie, 62, who, with partners Bob Nylen and Jerry Strum, has owned the property on Mesaba Avenue near Central Entrance since January 1986.
"But what’s going to replace it will also be very nice and will be a wonderful addition for the city of Duluth," Magie said.
Condominiums will be built once the Buena Vista closes and is demolished. The 45 one-, two- and three-bedroom units will sell for $258,900 to $529,900. About 20 already are sold, said developer Tim Wiklund of Superior Vista LLC.
Work on the new homes will begin with the removal of hazardous materials from floor tiles, ceiling tiles and wrapping on pipes inside the former hotel. Abatement starts once permits are issued. The restaurant and bar will then be given seven days’ notice to close, Wiklund said.
Following demolition, construction on the new condos should begin within about a month, he said.
"We are really taking pains to make sure the building is something that represents the city well and represents us well," he said. "It’s going to be something we can all be proud of."
The existing Buena Vista, built in the 1950s and remodeled in 1995, was a popular landmark that won’t soon be forgotten, customers, guests and several longtime employees said. About 40 people work for the motel, restaurant and lounge.
"Everyone’s going to be sad to see it go. It’s been an institution," said Brad Mitchell, a bartender in the lounge since the 1980s, when the basement bar opened. "We’ve had all walks of life in here, college kids to blue collar to white collar. It’s been a real mixing pot of Duluth."
The restaurant upstairs was popular for breakfast meetings involving everyone from police chiefs and mayors to real estate agents and school principals. Couples got engaged at the Buena Vista, then returned each year on their anniversay.
"We even had a class reunion in here once," said Jeanna Gagne, a waitress for nearly 20 years. "Everybody came here. There were so many great people, so many great customers. I am going to miss so many of them."
Duluthians Dianne Johnson (left) and Gayle Maruska share lunch at the Buena Vista restaurant against the backdrop of Park Point and Lake Superior. "It’s a beautiful day to look out," Johnson said. The Buena Vista was the first restaurant Johnson ate at years ago when she came to Duluth for a job interview. (Bob King / News Tribune)
Judy French of Two Harbors visited the Buena Vista regularly since the 1950s, she said. She and her husband, Brad French, returned last week for the final time.
"My last visit for Swedish pancakes," the computer programmer sighed on her way in. "I’m crushed. I was going to bring a camera, but I forgot."
Rose Kopecky’s last meal was blueberry pancakes.
"Sad. It almost makes you cry. But I guess that’s progress," said Kopecky, a home health aide for St. Mary’s / Duluth Clinic. She dined with her husband, Don Kopecky, a retired construction worker. The two drove to the Buena Vista from their home in Cloquet.
"You’re not going to get this view at any other restaurant,"she said. "Last year my daughter came home from Oregon with her new boyfriend. He had never been to Duluth so we had to take him here. He was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?"
Janet Dirtzu of Inver Grove Heights, a St. Paul suburb, was the last guest to check out of the 28-room Buena Vista motel Aug. 21. She and her sister, Gloria Dirtzu, and her mother, Lucille Dirtzu, couldn’t help but dawdle and linger before finally turning in their room key.
"Those last few minutes were precious," said Janet Dirtzu, a regular guest in the fireplace room at the Buena Vista for about 15 years. "Any time we go up and we stay in Duluth, that’s where we stay. It was always quiet and clean and we loved the people and the view. Once we got there we felt like we were home. Always. We’re really going to miss it."
Jeanna Gagne, a longtime waitress at the Buena Vista restaurant, takes an order for lunch from Virginia Shipper of Duluth. "I come here for the good food and the view," Shipper said. The Buena Vista motel has closed and the restaurant will close soon. (Bob King / News Tribune)
HOME SWEET HOME
The Buena Vista really was home to Marsha K. Wick and John Wick. The couple lived in a spacious apartment in the motel basement for 10 years as on-site managers. Three of their four grandchildren took their first steps in the motel office. A granddaughter rolled over for the first time on Marsha K. Wick’s desk. She’s keeping the desk.
"We’re going to be unemployed and homeless," she joked. "We’re going to go down with the ship and tread water and then go from there."
In reality, the couple purchased a home in Superior, already marveling at how quiet it is at night without water running, people walking and toilets flushing upstairs. John Wick is starting his own maintenance and repair business. The new condominiums are among his first clients, he said.
"Could you put under my name in bold, ‘Available for work’ ?" Marsha K. Wick, 48, said, this time only half-joking. "I promised I’d stay here until the end. This is the end. Now I’ll start looking" for a new job.
"But it’s been wonderful to work here," she said. "It’s been a great place to live."
"It would have been a sad deal, but we got over the sadness. Now we’re ready to move on," said John Wick, 56. "I figured we’d retire here. I guess not. Still, it’s the end of an era. Mom-and-pop hotels are getting to be a tough sell."
The Buena Vista motel just couldn’t compete with the big chains and their free continental breakfasts, heated swimming pools and abundance of low-rate rooms, said Magie and the Wicks.
The building was aging and in need of updating, said Jamie Wilson, who, with a business partner, leased space at the Buena Vista and owned and operated the bar and lounge.
Their share of the property’s $1.7 million sale will seed two new restaurants in Duluth, Wilson said. Baja Billy’s Cantina and Grill opened in June in the Fitger’s Brewery Complex, occupying the former Chi-Chi’s restaurant space. Tejas Texas Grill and Saloon will open by November near Duluth International Airport.
"It was always the people and the view that made the Buena Vista so great. Both were wonderful. The community supported us from day one," Wilson said. "A lot of people are very disappointed right now because of the closing. But it’s time to move on."
Here are some more Buena Vista photos:
Andrew Plemmons of Duluth uses binoculars the Buena Vista provides to scan the panoramic view. (Bob King / News Tribune)
Carol Dorsey of Florida enjoys one of the Buena Vista’s specialties, sweet potato chips. She was at the restaurant with a long-time friend in August 2005. (Bob King / News Tribune)
The former Buena Vista motel-restaurant-lounge lies in rubble during demolition on Oct. 21, 2005. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)
The Buena Vista site is now occupied by the Superior Vista condominiums.
Share your memories of the Buena Vista by adding a comment.
– Andrew Krueger