Key to the past: Relic from Duluth’s long-gone Spalding Hotel shows up in the mail a half-century later

DULUTH -- If you're among the generations who remember AM radios, black-and-white TV and dial telephones, you probably remember hotel keys.In the days before magnetic-strip cards were swiped to enter hotel rooms, there used to be old-fashioned do...

U.S. Postal Service window clerk Steve Holmstrom holds a room key from the Hotel Spalding that was delivered to the main Duluth Post Office Tuesday in Postage Due mail from St. Paul. The Hotel Spalding was demolished in 1963. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH - If you’re among the generations who remember AM radios, black-and-white TV and dial telephones, you probably remember hotel keys.
In the days before magnetic-strip cards were swiped to enter hotel rooms, there used to be old-fashioned door keys. And attached to each door key was a piece of plastic or wood with the hotel name and address stamped on.
In case you accidentally absconded with the key and drove on to the next city before realizing it, no problem: Drop in any mailbox, a message read; postage was guaranteed.
And that’s just what happened this week when the main post office in Duluth received a hotel key.
From Room 319 at the Spalding Hotel in downtown Duluth.
Which was demolished 53 years ago.
“Obviously we don’t get many of these any more. We’re not sure how this one showed up now,” said Steve Holmstrom, a window clerk at the main post office on West Michigan Street.
When hotel keys were common, any keys deposited in the mail ended up at the hotel’s home post office. The hotel had to pay the postage due before getting the key back.
“Of course they wanted them back, so it was pretty common back in the day,” Holmstrom said.
Holmstrom said it’s rare to see hotel keys any more, let alone one from a hotel long since closed.
“We’re thinking someone must have been cleaning out Grandma or Grandpa’s house and came across the key and did what it said, dropped it in the mail,” he said. “There may be one place in Duluth and a couple on the North Shore that still use keys, so we do see them, but very occasionally.”
The Spalding Hotel, at Superior Street and Fifth Avenue West, the site of the current Ordean Building, opened in 1889 and rivaled the city’s fanciest. It was named after the leader of the investment group that built the place.
The massive, 200-room building stood seven stories tall and dominated the downtown skyline for years. Built of brown sandstone, red brick and terra cotta, the Spalding’s top floor was capped with a mansard roof covered with tile shingles, according to Zenith City Online.
It was described as an “artistic blending of Gothic, Corinthian, and Egyptian styles.” The interior walls were paneled and trimmed with quarter-sawn oak. The hotel hosted many famous people, including boxer Jack Dempsey and presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
“It was spectacular. There was a grandfather clock in the lobby that must have been 10 or 12 feet tall. Just gorgeous. I wanted to buy it at the sale, but I didn’t have the money,” said Walt Pietrowski, a lifelong Duluthian and antiques aficionado. “It’s so sad what they did at that end of town, tearing everything down.”
The hotel fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1963 as part of a larger urban renewal push that saw much of the western blocks of downtown - considered the Bowery, where the poor and downtrodden lived and drank - leveled for new development including the library, Radisson Hotel and high-rise apartments.
A little-known tidbit: Prior to demolition, one of the Spalding’s grand wooden doorway arches was salvaged and now anchors the Minnesota State Fair location of St. Paul’s O’Gara’s Bar and Grill.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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