The 143-year-old Archer House River Inn in downtown Northfield, Minn., had never looked better. Owners had recently renovated the lobby, a bar and guest rooms, and had given the historic building a fresh coat of paint. They held a photo shoot last week to document the work.
Those photos were about all that remained after a fire that started Thursday afternoon and burned into Friday destroyed much of the redbrick landmark with the white trim and mansard roof that has helped define Northfield for generations.
"It's heartbreaking to see a beautiful building looking like this," said Todd Byhre, COO and director of operations at Rebound Hospitality, the company that owns the hotel. "This was the heart and soul of Northfield."
A cook in the restaurant where the fire started suffered minor burns trying to extinguish it, and one Northfield firefighter was taken to Northfield Hospital with an injury, but all diners and employees got out safely and no other injuries were reported. No guests were staying in the hotel but eight to 10 reservations for the weekend were canceled, Byhre said.
"All the safety systems worked," he said, noting that the hotel had sprinklers and alarms.
The blaze broke out about 3:35 p.m. Thursday in the kitchen of the Smoqehouse restaurant, located in the same building as the hotel. A smoker in the restaurant caught fire, Byhre said.
Crews at first thought they had the fire under control. But it found its way into the walls and quickly spread into the hotel, said Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott.
Firefighters from Northfield and several surrounding communities battled the stubborn blaze, which burned throughout the night. They opened holes in the walls and roof of the four-story structure in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, Elliott said.
Christopher McTaggart said smoke and steam were pouring out of the building and flames were shooting from the roof when he stopped to snap some photos around 9 p.m. Thursday. The inn, near Carleton College, is popular with out-of-town parents visiting students at Carleton and St. Olaf College.
"It's a wonderful place with wonderful rooms," said McTaggart, who takes photographs for Carleton's media relations department. "It's sad to see it go. It's 2020 — just another thing."
Engineers had yet to complete an official assessment of damage Friday, but Byhre didn't believe any part of the building housing the hotel, two restaurants, a pub and new gift shop preparing for the holidays could be saved.
Tears flowed among many saddened onlookers who watched helplessly as the fire ravaged the building that has been a pillar of the community since it opened on Division Street in 1877 — only a year after the famous Jesse James bank raid in downtown Northfield.
"It feels like a death," said Lisa Peterson, president of the Northfield Chamber of Commerce. "It's hard to think of it not being there."
Designed in the French Second Empire style, the Archer House River Inn was one of Minnesota's oldest continually running inns. Located on the banks of the Cannon River, the inn has been the site for untold numbers of wedding receptions, special events and business meetings. It was often featured on promotional pieces distributed by the city's convention and visitors bureau and Chamber of Commerce, Peterson said.
The hotel had been closed for four months over the spring and summer, partly due to a business downturn expected when Carleton and St. Olaf closed because of the pandemic. Byhre said the owners used the time to upgrade the facility, spending $150,000 on the project. The hotel reopened in late summer.
"We were excited to get up and running," Byhre said. The place, he added, "never looked better."
But on Friday, things could not have looked worse. Floors were covered with 6 inches of water and much of the building was scarred. Rebound Hospitality CEO Brett Reese said it was too soon to say if the company would rebuild.
But Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell said she's hopeful that Archer House will be back.
The hotel "holds a special place in our community's heart," Pownell said. "As we look to the future, I am hopeful because of the resiliency and generosity of our community, and am looking forward to the beauty that will come from the ashes."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768