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Kathleen Murphy column: Downtown Duluth showcases eras in architecture

Every era from the 1880s to the present day is represented.

FILE: Alworth Building
The Alworth Building, 306 W. Superior St., was the tallest building in Duluth from its construction in 1910 until Essentia Health erected its new building.
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune
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A friend came to visit me recently. She had never been to Duluth and was a gracious visitor, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at all the appropriate times as I showed off our city. She took in our scenery, the hipster outdoor vibe, the mighty lake and the touristy stores. I showed her hidden gems that only the locals know, then took her to Canal Park. She saw a decent representation of our fair city.

As I drove her to the airport, I asked her what stood out to her. What about Duluth really caught her attention?

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Kathleen Murphy

“The downtown buildings.”

Wait. What? This took me by surprise. The downtown buildings? I have to admit, other than to show her my workplace and to drive through on our way to other things, we didn’t spend that much time downtown.

“It doesn’t all look the same,” she said when pressed to explain. When we were driving through downtown Duluth, me prattling on about other things, she was taking in the buildings and really noticing the diversity of building styles we have.

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file: downtown Duluth
Businesses on East Superior Street in downtown Duluth seen April 28, 2020.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s like a marriage of eras,” she said. “The whole downtown tells the story of its history.”

I dropped her off at the airport then drove home mulling over her observations. A few blocks from my house, I turned the car around and headed downtown. I had to take it in while this thought was fresh in my mind.

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Construction crews work to complete Historic Old Central High School in downtown Duluth in this photo from about 1891 or 1892. The school opened in 1892.
File / Duluth News Tribune
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Historic Old Central High School, shown in 2019.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

And … she was right. Every era from the 1880s to the present day is represented. The Wirth Building, which now houses Lizzard’s Art Gallery at 13 W. Superior St., was built in 1886. Historic Old Central High School, one of our more spectacular buildings, was built in 1892. Both showcase the intrinsic and beautiful stonework that was popular at the time.

The Medical Arts Building, 324 W. Superior St., still stands as testament to the 1930s, its Art Deco beauty all the rage during the Great Depression.

Next door at 332 W. Superior St. is the Providence Building, which was built in 1895, but its exterior completely renovated in 1982 to look more streamlined and modern.

One block down stands the Ordean Building, 424 W. Superior St., in all its 1970s concrete glory. We were nothing if not functional in the ’70s and ’80s.

Seven-story concrete office building with strong vertical lines, photographed against blue skies on a sunny day. In the foreground, a bus stop bears the word SUPERIOR.
The Ordean Building, 424 W. Superior St., Duluth.
Jay Gabler / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

Most of our government buildings were built between 1909-1929, the polished granite and intricate details of the roof line indicative of government buildings of the time. These butt right up to the St. Louis County Government Services Center, which was built in 1981. It looks like what it is, a standard-issue government building, not really meant to be noticed.

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The only era that doesn’t really stand out is the ‘50s and ‘60s, likely because Duluth struggled economically during this time and didn’t have a lot of resources to build. In fact, I read on Perfect Duluth Day that the downtown Radisson Hotel — another standout building in our city, if only for its unusual shape and position downtown as one of the first buildings to greet people — was at the time of its construction in 1970 the first new hotel to be built in Duluth in 43 years.

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The Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview, pictured in 1970, turned 50 years old in 2020.
Contributed / Radisson Hotel
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The Maurices headquarters, 425 W. Superior St. in downtown Duluth, shown in 2017, shortly after it was built.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Modern-day additions to our downtown include the Maurices building and the not-yet-finished Essentia Health–St. Mary’s Medical Center that now towers over our skyline. I have heard people complain that these buildings don’t fit in, that the architects should have tried to blend them into the surrounding building style, but I’m not sure there is one any more. My friend was right. Downtown Duluth is an eclectic blend of eras.

I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Again, I have heard people criticize new building styles, but when the mighty Alworth Building was built at 306 W. Superior St. — Duluth’s tallest building for 112 years since its construction in 1910 — it was built in the common style of its day. Most buildings are.

The new Essentia building, rising 15 stories above East Superior Street, has taken the long-standing title of Duluth’s tallest building. I might argue that it should be built to modern-day standards and ideals.

Essentia buildings.
Essentia Health campus in Duluth on Aug. 4.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune
The new Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center is anticipated to begin training staff in February. The $900 million, 942,000-square-foot project is still on time and on budget, Essentia CEO David Herman said.

We might not all appreciate the style from certain eras, but when a city retains all of the eras in the way that Duluth has managed to do, it’s rather beautiful in its own way. Rather than standing apart, they blend downtown Duluth into one long story. We are showcasing our history, our perseverance, and our story throughout time.

And that is something worth preserving.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com .

This column originally listed an incorrect architect for Historic Old Central High School. According to Zenith City Online , the building's architects were Emmet S. Palmer & Lucien P. Hall. It was updated at 9:15 a.m. Oct. 9. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Related Topics: DULUTHFAMILY
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth.
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