Chuck Frederick column: Demolishing Duluth
Bulldozers are wiping them out this summer, one by one, those remnants of our rich past, those landmark structures that are — or were — all about who we are, who we used to be, and what it was that made our corner of the world special, unique and not just a generic, chain-filled Anytown, USA.
They seem to be coming down at an alarming rate, too. Or maybe I’m just getting older, paying more attention, and relating more to things tossed on the scrap heap of time. Maybe, like them, I’m not ready to be gone and too-soon forgotten. Who is?
First went the Palladio building at Fourth Avenue West and Superior Street. While it “really isn’t that big of a loss to the architectural integrity of Duluth’s historic building stock,” the Palladio did have “historical significance,” the excellent website devoted to Duluth’s history, Zenith City Online (zenithcity.com), noted. The Palladio was home to WEBC Radio, the first radio station in the region; it was the first home of the Chinese Lantern restaurant; and it was home to Duluth’s first TV station, WFTV Channel 38. Even if it wasn’t architecturally unique and even if it had been ‘remuddled’ over the years, as Zenith City opined, its place in Duluth’s past was well-established long before it was leveled and removed this summer by a parade of dump trucks.
Then the West Duluth Village Hall building, constructed in 1892, was bulldozed. What a loss. The building was designed by famed architect Oliver Traphagen during the Duluth-area building boom of 1886 to 1896. A grand Romanesque Revival-style structure of brownstone quarried from the St. Louis River, its first floor held firefighting equipment, a jailer’s office and six cells; its second floor was where the firefighters slept; and its third floor served as a municipal courtroom and meeting space for the village council. When the village of West Duluth was annexed by Duluth in January 1894, the building continued to be used as a police and fire headquarters. It was replaced in 1915 by a new facility on the other side of Cody Street on Central Avenue. That building still stands after being converted into apartments. Through the years, the original village hall was used as a Studebaker dealership and for other purposes, including, finally, as the home of Twin Ports Amusement.
“Its historic significance is obvious, with its connection to first the village and then the community of West Duluth,” Zenith City Online’s Tony Dierckins wrote this month in eulogy. “While the demolition was publicized months ago, no preservation group … stepped forward in defense of the structure. It (had) been empty and for sale for years, (had) no landmark protection and (wasn’t) on the National Register of Historic Places. It (was) the owner’s right to do with the building (as) he or she (wished).”
True, but still, what a sad loss.
And the losses just keep coming.
In late May, Stadium Lanes closed in West Duluth after being a fixture for league bowlers, families and others since 1960. Fifty-four years of history, just closed, gutted and gone. Poof. Like that, even if the now-abandoned building, in search of a new use, still stands.
Then, in July, the city announced plans to remove and memorialize the historic ski jumps at Chester Bowl. Olympians got their start there. Grand championships were held there, attracting thousands. Now, few seem to care whether the jumps are there or not.
“Seven years ago Duluth gave the Duluth Ski Club a chance to raise money and do something to preserve the jumps, and that effort never even got off the ground,” said Dierckins, one of those tapped to help with the memorializing. “They have become dangerous, cannot be returned to usable ski jumps and would cost millions just to stabilize. … It’s a shame: I live in their shadow and … will miss them.”
Call the jumps a loss-in-progress, a status that can be shared with St. Peter’s Catholic Church at 818 W. Third St. The Gothic-Romanesque style building opened in 1927 after being built by hand by Italian immigrant stonemasons, bricklayers and cement workers who donated their sweat and time. They were some of the same Italian immigrant stonemasons and others who built Enger Tower, retaining walls and other bluestone structures and foundations that still give Duluth so much of its unique look, feel and charm. Faced with mounting expenses and dwindling parishioners, the church celebrated its last Mass in October 2010. The building has been gutted of anything valuable since then and left to decay by the Catholic Diocese of Duluth. Demolition by neglect, though the final removal no doubt will be carried out by a bulldozer once the valuable land beneath the old church is sold.
As much as I clearly love and respect history, especially local history, and the lessons it offers for plotting a successful future, I’m not trying to say here that all change is bad or that all out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new proposals should be opposed.
The history-rich but nondescript Palladio building, for example, is being replaced by a $70 million, 11-story office tower that’ll serve as headquarters for Maurices. Duluth gets a new landmark, an upgrade to its skyline, and assurance the clothing giant that has called downtown Duluth home for nearly eight and a half decades isn’t going anywhere. Win-win-win.
But I am saying we shouldn’t just stand idly by when the bulldozers start rumbling. We’re stewards of our landmark structures. Those remaining remnants of our rich past deserve to be preserved whenever possible and wherever it makes sense. No one wants to be too-soon forgotten.
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor. Contact him at (218) 723-5316 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.