MOORHEAD - Aaron Duma spent a lot of his life at 701 1st Ave. N.

He was general manager of both the The Broken Axe and Usher’s House when they brought diners and revelers to the former American Legion post.

Now Duma has plans of his own for the big fieldstone building and its dramatic views of the Red River.

Duma wants to open up the interior of the former restaurant and turn it into River Haven - a wedding and events center for Moorhead in the style of Fargo’s Sanctuary Events Center.

“I’ve had a lot of years to think about this place,” Duma said Thursday, May 9.

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Once he and his partners close the deal, it’s demolition time.

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The bar and balcony above it in the center of the building will go, as will the professional kitchen. The roof and its beams will be dry-ice blasted to expose the old wood. And the flooring and walls will be refinished.

A wall between the north-end dining area and what had been the kitchen will also be ripped out to open the building from one end to another.

“We’re banking that if we open this space up and make it more functional, people will want to use it,” Duma said.

The building will be used for weddings and a variety of other events in fall, winter and spring. Summer weddings will probably move out to the patio.

“My sales manager is champing at the bit,” said Duma, who is the operating partner for Sanctuary Events Center.

Demand is there

The Fargo-Moorhead area needs more event space. The Sanctuary Events Center schedule was packed in 2018, with 321 events held there, Duma said.

The first wedding at River Haven is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 28, with other events scheduled for October, he said.

“One things folks will like about this space is the privacy,” Duma said, plus “the character of the historic building.”

People want to marry in interesting local spaces, he said.

The building is about 40 feet wide by 100 feet, providing 4,000 square feet upstairs and about the same downstairs.

Duma and his partners in River Haven, developer Jade Nielsen, his father Ted Duma, and Jon Rustvang, are buying the building for about $540,000. Duma expects remodeling to cost $300,000, putting the total investment just under $1 million.

“We’re rather confident. We’ve proven the model” at the Sanctuary Events Center, which has a long waiting list, he said.

Duma said there is a list of people waiting to sign contracts at River Haven, too.

“The demand is there,” Duma said.

He estimates River Haven will be able to handle weddings of about 250 people, making it smaller and more intimate than Sanctuary.

The downstairs at River Haven will be set up with suites for brides, grooms and the wedding party to prepare, and a common area. A preparation kitchen will also go downstairs and several caterers have been lined up, including Mosaic Catering and Events, Chef’s Table Catering, Urban Foods Catering, and Usher’s House (now reopened in the Block E building at 8th Street and Main Avenue). The bar will also be catered, Duma said.

The old fieldstone building at 701 1st Ave. N. in Moorhead started as an American Legion club in the mid-1930s, and most recently has been home to a succession of restaurants. Now, a group of investors plans to turn it into River Haven, a wedding and events center. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
The old fieldstone building at 701 1st Ave. N. in Moorhead started as an American Legion club in the mid-1930s, and most recently has been home to a succession of restaurants. Now, a group of investors plans to turn it into River Haven, a wedding and events center. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)(Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

A lot of history

The Depression-era building was built with federal Works Progress Administration funding. When it was finished in 1936, it became an American Legion post and community auditorium.

Stonemasons had laboriously shaped the fieldstone pulled from Sabin-area fields, according to the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

“The building of the place fed the community during rough, rough times,” Duma said.

The Legion used the building until the mid-1990s, when the club moved to a new facility on the east side of Moorhead. For years, it sat vacant.

In late 2001, it was reopened as the Red Bear Grill & Tavern. The Red Bear a reference to the Red River and two bears that had lived in a zoo at the site. (The old bear cage still remains on the northwest side of the property.)

Not long after the Red Bear closed, The Broken Axe opened in April 2006. That restaurant and music club lasted until Jan. 1, 2008. A few months later, the casual fine dining restaurant Usher’s House opened. Usher's remained open until the end of 2017.

(A revived Usher’s House recently reopened in Moorhead’s Block E building.)

Duma said he’d like to bring musical acts to River Haven, too, perhaps with food trucks serving.

In time, Duma said he’d also like to build a stone bar rail and grill area outside, and replace the old gazebo/cottage, nicknamed “the boathouse,” with a nice deck.

“There isn’t a time of the year when the view from here isn’t beautiful,” Duma said. “I think fall will be our most in-demand season. People want those colors.”