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Duluth’s revolving restaurant harkens back to an age of sophistication and optimism – Bemidji Pioneer

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Duluth – When kids were growing up in Duluth in the 80’s, my brothers and I desperately wanted to go to the revolving restaurant at the top of the Radisson. My mother decided to use it as motivation: We could get to the top of the Radisson, she said, when we had “Radisson’s highest decency”.

Clem Hayden, former chief engineer at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth, and his successor, Rob Hendrickson, look at the restaurant’s rotating drive mechanism on March 1, 1989.

Charles Curtis/File/Duluth News-Tribune

When we started to sit down at the table, Mom reminded us. “children!” she was saying. Radisson Summit!

The restaurant was an unusual feature even then; Today, it’s quite rare. A Wikipedia listing indicates that the United States only has about 15 revolving restaurants that are still in operation and open to the public to serve regular dine-in.

You won’t find one in Chicago, Houston, or Philadelphia. The revolving St. Paul’s was discontinued in 2006. In Duluth, though, the restaurant now called the Apostle Supper Club still takes diners on a 72-minute, 360-degree circuit.

On Thursday, January 12, I crossed Fifth Avenue West, and pressed the “R” button on the Radisson elevator. I sat at a high table near the outer edge of the restaurant ring, looking out at the slowly passing horizon and wondering why we Dolothians didn’t make a bigger deal about our revolving restaurant.

When the Radisson Duluth Hotel opened in 1970, readers of the News Tribune’s opinion page might have thought the city was opening a cathedral. “As far as brick and mortar, glass and steel, the new Radisson Hotel Duluth is soul,” read an editorial dated May 29, 1970. “This new hotel is the commitment of a generation of this city.”

You can’t blame the paper for being overzealous. The new hotel, with its radical restaurant, was the crown jewel of the more than decade-old Gateway Urban Renewal project, which cleaned up a wide strip of what was known as Duluth’s “Bowery” neighborhood. Goodbye bars and flowers. Hey, Minnesota’s tallest cylindrical building!

“Troop Withdrawal Grinds to Halt in South Vietnam” read the News Tribune’s headline the day he used “special gold-coated scissors” to cut Radisson’s ribbon. General Manager Clark Dome unlocked the front doors with a key, which he then threw away in dramatic fashion to indicate that the hotel was permanently open. It was the first new hotel in downtown Duluth in over 40 years.

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Black and white portrait with a light-skinned man in a business suit standing in the midst of a smiling crowd, holding his fingers together as if he was holding something small.

On May 14, 1970, Radisson general manager Clark Dome threw the key to the front door of the newly opened Duluth Hotel, indicating his plans to never lock the door again.

File/Duluth News-Tribune

A front page story “It was love at first sight” advertised for the hotel’s first guests. “The Radisson Duluth is filled with a year-round heated pool and a revolving restaurant on the 16th floor that will make the entire Duluth skyline spin and harbor every 60 minutes.”

The Apostle Supper Club, which opened on the top floor of the Radisson last spring, harkens back to the ’60s rather than the ’70s. Although the decor is a bit outdated for a Nixon-era Duluth revolving restaurant, the Kennedy/LBJ years saw the heyday of excitement for revolving restaurants.

Much of the music I heard over dinner last week was released just as Seattle dazzled America with its famous Space Needle. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the tourist tower in Seattle houses a restaurant called Eye of the Needle, advertised as spinning with such grace that it “won’t tip even a martini.”

This was not the first revolving restaurant in the world. Germany opened one the year before. Back in the Roman Empire, in fact, Nero had a revolving dining hall that archaeologists believe turned into a mechanism powered by water flowing from aqueducts.

For the game of Civilization played by Duluth developers in the 1960s, a revolving restaurant was a sign of sophistication—and a way to showcase our shoreline long before Lakewalk and Bayfront Festival Park came along.

“Revolving restaurants were prestigious symbols of access,” historian Chad Randel wrote in his 2008 book Revolving Architecture. Randel connects the popularity of revolving restaurants to the stinging technological optimism of the space race. The Radisson Hotel in Duluth opened for business less than a year after humans first set foot on the moon.

1 Radisson 0510.jpg

The Radisson Duluth Hotel, as seen in its opening year in 1970. A 1977 expansion would add 60 guest rooms and a parking ramp.

Contributed / Radisson Hotel

“The designers sought to make visitors feel, if only for an hour, that they are part of an advanced age,” Randel writes. Diners felt they had “left the present behind and stepped into a distinct tomorrow”.

The Radisson Hotel’s restaurant continues to provide a unique window into Duluth’s vast industrial infrastructure. On January 12th, the antennae farm’s red lights flash across the sky like UFO landing beacons. As my table turned to face the harbor, I watched the thousand-foot James R. Parker make a neat turn before gliding under the aerial lift bridge. The ship’s massive size was particularly evident at night, as its lights stretched the length of three city blocks.

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A fair-skinned woman with dark curly hair and glasses, dressed in a black and white maid-like outfit, lifts a cash check from a restaurant dining table.

Bev Paulson, a server at the Radisson Top of the Harbor Hotel since it opened in 1970, clears a table in the restaurant in June 1994.

Raina Mackenzie/File/Duluth News-Tribune

It was impossible to miss Elvis Presley in the music mix. King stayed at the Radisson Hotel in 1976 and 1977, becoming the establishment’s most popular fan. The last year saw the hotel expand, adding 60 rooms and a parking ramp. Over the years, the hotel has seen several renovations and infrastructural updates, including the 1999 addition of the “Skunnel”: the gate mapping skyway tunnel connecting the hotel to the Duluth Public Library.

The restaurant was the location for a dinner date in last year’s holiday movie “Merry Kiss Cam,” though its rotation was discontinued during filming for the sake of continuity. The filmmakers behind In Winter 2017 kept the restaurant spinning for surreal effect, but the scene they shot there wasn’t the final fix.

A fair-skinned middle-aged man in sports equipment points something to a young, fair-skinned woman standing on the left with her hand on her hip inside a revolving restaurant.

Actress Nora T. O’Brien listens to “In Winter” director Alex Gutterman while filming a scene at JJ Astor’s Restaurant at the Radisson Duluth in 2013.

Clint Austin/File/Duluth News-Tribune

The former Top of the Harbor restaurant became JJ Astor’s in 2010, after surviving the pandemic but closing in 2022 as Purpose Restaurants came along with the tropical-themed Apostle Supper Club. “We wanted it to feel very fresh and summery,” owner Brian Ingram said at the opening ceremony. “Our menu type reflects that.”

As I watched Duluth slowly slip away by Jan. 12, I enjoyed ordering a pickle-cured fried chicken with skin so thick and juicy that the meat was essentially a side dish. I looked out the windows of Morris’ residence and descended into the stacks of the public library. I caught glimpses of the warehouse’s great hall, and watched rows of cars creep down Mesaba Avenue.

The ride was as smooth as the Seattle Space Needle once promised, an occasional squeak being the only audible indication that my table was progressing at a rate of about 1/20 mph. My server said “sometimes I wish it was faster”. Personally, I was fine with it. No need to stress Duluth’s mid-century marvel machinery.

The novelty of revolving restaurants had begun to wear off by the time the Radisson Duluth opened. Just four years later, a similar place built in Bloomington, Minnesota, became an office instead when no restaurant would take the lease. The culinary culture in America became more sophisticated, and diners lost interest in new restaurants where the price of food was much higher than its quality.

Duluth’s revolving restaurant may not be on-brand, and you may or may not find food worth the splurge, but next time you praise our city’s attractions, don’t think about the most exciting leftover of space. Age: A beacon for progressing through Duluth’s two difficult decades when inspiring signs were few and far between.

A new restaurant has opened at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth

A view of the dining room showing views of downtown Duluth during an event celebrating the May 5 opening of the Apostle Supper Club at the Radisson Hotel.

Clint Austin/File/Duluth News-Tribune

This is a city that cares about its history. Our trains still roll, our bridge still goes up, and even that 115-year-old grain elevator still works. The Norshore Theatre, which was showing “A Man Called a Horse” when the Radisson opened, has been restored to newfound glory.

Besides — literally — Duluth is one of more than a dozen cities in America where you can walk into a restaurant and ask a question like the one I heard when I stepped out of the elevator on Jan. 12, wearing a sport coat and the best-mannered crowd at the highest level at Radisson.

“Would you like to be at the bar,” the host asked, “or would you like something in turns?” “