The Temple Opera Block has served as the home of many businesses and organizations in its 132 years at 221 E. Superior St. in Duluth. Now, the historic building is the new location of Bell Bank.
Tim McShane, Bell Bank Twin Ports market president, said the interior of the building was gutted, but care was taken to preserve its historic details.
“We didn’t want to lose the history of the building,” McShane said. “There are not that many historical buildings left and we wanted to preserve everything that we possibly could.”
Built in 1889 as a Masonic temple, the building originally had seven stories, including a Moorish dome. The Romanesque-style building was designed by Duluth architects McMillen and Stebbins to match the city hall, armory, police headquarters and jail across the street.
A fire in Duluth’s Grand Opera House in 1889 led to the addition of a new opera house at the end of the block with a Second Avenue East entrance. This addition produced the building’s names: the Temple Opera House and the Temple Opera Block — the latter of which is now Bell Bank. The block was used by the Masons, the Duluth Public Library and various tenants who rented office and retail spaces.
Former Duluth Preservation Alliance president Dennis Lamkin said he was pleased that Bell Bank and Titanium Partners, which owns the building, have contributed to the preservation of the Historic Arts and Theater District.
“Their architect was very respectful of the architecture of the building down to the restoration of the iconic keyhole windows on Superior Street,” Lamkin said in an email. “Those windows reflected the shape of the original onion dome once located on the top of the building and the shape of the main entryway.”
The renovation and restoration was done by DSGW Architects and Johnson Wilson Construction. Neither McShane nor Titanium President and CEO Brian Forcier disclosed the exact amount invested in the building, but McShane said Bell Bank and Titanium each invested several million dollars.
Titanium acquired the Temple Opera Block from the city for $450,000, with a development agreement that they would invest $400,000 in upgrades to the building. Forcier said they “far, far exceeded investment.”
“When we bought the building we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do with it, but we wanted to do a project that would retain most of the historic nature of the building while, at the same time, making it financially feasible,” Forcier said. “I think in this case we really accomplished both of those things.”
The possibilities for the building were nearly endless, as it had already been through so much change in its lifetime. The Opera House section of the block went up in flames in 1895, and the library relocated in 1902 from the Temple Opera Block to the Carnegie library building on West Second Street, where it stayed until 1980. The Masons moved to a new temple in 1904. The Opera House’s ruins became a roller rink from 1905 to 1910, and then it became the Orpheum Theatre until 1934. The dome and top three floors of the Temple Opera Block were removed in 1942.
For the next century, various renters used the building for office and retail space, offering services like music lessons, a pharmacy, beauty salons, coffee shops, computer repair and mental health services. The building’s last tenants were evicted by the Duluth Economic Development Authority in 2018.
The fireplace stones in the lobby are sourced from longtime Bell Bank majority shareholder and director Thomas “Mickey” Snortland’s farm. Snortland, who died in 2013, began the tradition of incorporating the stones to connect each of the Fargo-based bank branches to his agricultural roots.
Features preserved from the Temple Opera Block’s past include the original balcony and wrought-iron railing on the second floor, window trim, keyhole window shapes, and the bannister and light fixture in the employee stairwell.
The building will eventually connect to the skywalk system. The Romanesque brownstone exterior was largely unchanged and still features carvings of Masonic symbols at the bank’s customer entry.
Construction to renovate the Temple Opera Block to accommodate Bell Bank began in April and was completed in December. The bank has been open to the public since Jan. 4 and its offices occupy all three floors of the building.
The location in the HART district was one of the biggest draws for Bell Bank. This is the second historic development Titanium Partners has restored in the district, after turning the Last Place on Earth building at 120 E. Superior St. into Blacklist Brewing Co. and condominiums.
Bell Bank offers retail, private and business banking, and mortgage lending. The privately owned bank had more than $8 billion in assets as of June 2020. There are currently 14 employees at the Twin Ports branch, but McShane hopes to add five or six more to the team. Bell Bank’s Duluth branch opened with partial service at the temporary location, 230 W. Superior St., in late 2019.
Historical information was collected from The Zenith City Press’ archive.