Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Archer House, once brick strong April 29, 2022

The Archer House River Inn in Northfield, following a devastating November 2020 fire. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)

ONCE UPON A TIME, three little pigs built three houses from assorted materials in an effort to keep the Big Bad Wolf from gaining entry. They soon discovered that houses constructed of straw and of sticks were easily blown over by a huffing, puffing, determined wolf. But, oh, the last house—the one built of bricks—stood strong. When the wolf attempted to gain entry through the chimney, he fell into a kettle of boiling water and that was the end of him. The pigs had anticipated his plan when they started a roaring fire in the hearth.

The fire began here, in the Smoqe House. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)
Shortly after the fire, the front entry to the historic Archer House River Inn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)
The fenced lot where the Archer House River Inn once stood in downtown Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

In real life, stories involving fire typically don’t end fabulously either. Such is the story of the historic 1877 Archer House River Inn. Today only a fenced, vacant lot marks the location of this iconic downtown Northfield landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. A November 2020 fire, which started in a commercial smoker inside Smoqehouse (a BBQ restaurant), resulted in the eventual total loss of the brick building. Water and weather, along with the original fire, took their toll. Portions of the structure eventually collapsed as time lapsed.

Much of the sprawling building complex remained following the initial fire. But, in the end, it couldn’t be saved. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)

For the community of Northfield, losing the Archer House was about more than losing a building which housed a riverside inn, restaurants and shops. It was about losing a lovely sprawling space that anchored the downtown along Division Street. The Archer House was the place of stories, of history, of memories. And so much more.

Debris from the Archer House inside the fenced lot. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Now bricks salvaged from the Archer House will be sold to benefit the Northfield Historical Society. The Archer House Brick Sale happens from 9 am – 4 pm Saturday, April 30, at the NHS Museum Store. That’s located just across from Bridge Square, a community gathering spot downtown by the Cannon River, and just blocks from the fenced Archer House lot.

A side view of the former Archer House site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo February 2022)

Since this is a fundraiser that also allows access to a bit of history, the bricks are priced accordingly. Half a brick will cost $10. A complete brick, $20. Discounts are offered with three bricks for $50 and seven bricks for $100. A trailer load of bricks will be sold, the size of that trailer not noted.

The exterior of the Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division Street, Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

In the end, there’s a bit of good in such immense community loss. Monies from the brick sale will go toward preservation of the Scriver Building, which houses the historical society. It was formerly the First National Bank, where the James-Younger Gang failed in an attempted bank robbery in September 1876.

Photographed from the library across the street shortly after the fire. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)

There’s a sequel to this tragic fire tale. Rebound Partners, the Northfield firm which owned the Archer House, plans to rebuild. Rebound promises to honor the history and riverside location in a mixed use building. It will never be the same as the historic Archer House. But Rebound’s past projects show their respect for history and for community. And that says a lot. The Big Bad Wolf, as in the story of The Three Little Pigs, cannot destroy a building built of bricks, at least not in memory and in history.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Northfield: When fire damages an historic river inn November 17, 2020

In the center of this photo, you can see the burned back section of the Archer House, west side. Photo take on Sunday afternoon, November 15.

I STOOD NEXT TO THE RIVER, camera aimed across the dark waters of the Cannon River to the historic building on the east bank. To the building with the gaping hole on the top floor. I struggled to hold my zoom lens still in the fierce wind of the bitterly cold Sunday afternoon. Viewing the devastating scene before me, I felt a deep sense of loss. No image I framed can fully capture the depths of loss for this southeastern Minnesota community. Material. Financial. Historic. Emotional.

The section of the sprawling building where the fire began in a smoker, then raced up walls from the lower level restaurant.

Last Thursday, November 12, at around 3:30 pm, fire broke out in a restaurant’s meat smoker inside the historic Archer House in downtown Northfield and quickly spread. The 1877 sprawling inn anchors the historic downtown on the north end. It’s perhaps the most recognizable of this community’s landmarks and much-loved.

Sunday afternoon, barricades blocked access to the burned Archer House River Inn and tenant businesses.

Today, the future of the aged building, which housed three restaurants—including Smoqe House, where the fire began, the 40-room inn and a gift shop—remains uncertain.

The welcoming front entry to the historic Archer House River Inn.

But of one thing I’m certain, if this historic river inn can be saved, it will be.

This is a beautifully-detailed building.

When I photographed the fire, water and smoke-damaged structure days after the fire, many others were doing the same. After viewing the inn from the west side of the Cannon, I moved to the east side, along Division Street, to get a full front view. This “landmark for hospitality and elegance” built in the French Second Empire Style stood tall and stately still, yet marred now by shattered windows, missing roof, fallen brick, and other debris.

From atop the library hill, I photographed the Archer House.

First I photographed from across the street, atop the hill by the Northfield Public Library, stepping across a dormant flowerbed next to a wrought iron railing. Later I descended to street level to also include the street barriers and yellow tape that keep onlookers away from the scene.

The Archer House sits across Division Street from the Northfield Public Library.

No matter the photographic perspective, the view looked the same. Devastating.

The highest window with the construction year noted, 1877 (part of the number is missing).

But as the good people of Northfield do—just as they did in 1876 to defeat the James-Younger Gang during a raid at the First National Bank—they’ve rallied. The Northfield Downtown Development Corporation has established an Archer House Relief Fund to assist and provide economic relief for the river inn and its tenants. The goal is $25,000. If you are able and inclined to contribute, please do so by clicking here.

The Archer House truly anchors downtown Northfield.

I don’t need to tell you these are challenging days in general. But then, to throw a fire into the mix of difficult times, well, it can all feel overwhelming.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling