Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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