From the top floor of the tallest building in Duluth, Jim Wheeler watches the construction of the Maurices headquarters unfold. Sometimes it’s for just 20 or 30 seconds a day, but it’s always worth the time.
“Isn’t that a great view?” said Wheeler, a partner in the 81-year-old insurance and investment firm that bears his family name, Wheeler Associates.
Wheeler’s office is on the 16th and top floor of the Alworth Building. Completed in 1910, the Alworth stands 247 feet tall and is appreciated for its vintage elevators. The Wheeler offices feature antique wooden oval windows - reminiscent of a ship’s portholes from another time looking down on a modern Duluth.
Even after the new 11-story Maurices headquarters is completed in April 2016, the Alworth Building will tower over it by about 40 feet.
Since work began on the new building last year, Wheeler has been saying to Brian Thun, Maurices chief financial officer, that the Alworth, at 306 W. Superior St., owns the best view in town of the construction process.
“He comes over occasionally and peeks out here,” Wheeler said, leaning into the window frame and looking at what amounts to the future.
Wheeler and others have come to appreciate not just the view but what the new $75 million structure represents in other ways.
“It’s a major investment in downtown and, for staying here, their 500 employees,” Wheeler said. “It’s also great for this end of downtown.”
The rising Maurices corporate headquarters takes up the entire block of 400 West Superior Street and will feature a parking garage entrance on the same block of First Street. As work is set to begin on the business offices of floors seven through 11 in April, already the Maurices project is taking others up along with it.
‘Synergy’ on West Superior Street
Like Wheeler, another Duluth business operator, Jesse Carlson, has made a point of seeking out a Maurices executive to show him something - in this case, gratitude. For Carlson, his subject was company President George Goldfarb, who fought to keep the Maurices headquarters in Duluth and move it a few blocks west on Superior Street, instead of, say, to Manhattan.
“I shook his hand and thanked him about that,” said Carlson, owner of Pizza Man restaurant directly across the street from the new Maurices building.
Goldfarb accepts the appreciation graciously, saying in a statement to the News Tribune, “I am thrilled that we are able to provide this new headquarters building to our associates. I’m also pleased that we are able to give back to our community by stimulating further economic development.”
Carlson, 29, bet on the 400 block when he bought the existing business five years ago. Then, he recalled, there was the mostly empty KDLH building across the street. News of Maurices’ pending arrival sparked Carlson into action. While he relies on delivery for 70 percent of his business - from 60th Avenue East to 60th Avenue West, he said - Carlson renovated the interior of his place to give it bistro appeal.
Now, as fast as he can bake them, Carlson is selling hot slices to construction workers seeking a quick repast. He studies the construction progress every day, documenting it with photographs on his phone. He’s eager to see an infusion of what’s yet to come.
Thun said Maurices is beginning to look for tenants for three street-level storefronts that will be part of the new building. The east corner figures to go to a bank, the west a restaurant with room next door for a nail salon or a similar type of business, Thun explained.
Carlson said adding neighbors “creates synergy, and gets people to this side of downtown.”
“For a young businessman to see Maurices’ big investment is so impressive,” he said. “The sheer numbers they’re working and betting on - millions and millions of dollars. My store is pretty small compared to what they’re dealing with, but it’s inspiring.”
Carlson’s father and brother own a 30-year-old plumbing business in town. He followed down their path with his own thirst for entrepreneurial success; the Duluth East graduate found opportunity in buying into the rights and recipes of a Minneapolis pizza chain. He has added two employees since his store makeover and isn’t going anywhere soon - except maybe up in stature.
“It’s an exciting time for me to be here,” Carlson said, “right in the middle of the development.”
Hair today, bigger tomorrow
Also across the street from the new construction, Amy Olson operates E’Clips on the Lake Salon. She cuts Goldfarb’s hair.
“I know George is excited to be able to step outside his office and come get his haircut,” said Olson, the owner of the salon.
Like Pizza Man, E’Clips is undertaking a makeover of its own in the shadow of the Maurices project. Olson is gutting and replacing the cutting stations that have been in place since a barber shop first operated out of her space on the 400 block of West Superior Street. Faced with the chance to draw even greater corporate traffic in the near future, Olson is making plans for extended hours and other considerations.
She was offered the chance to move into the Maurices building’s boutique slot, but chose to stay where she was because she loves her current street presence.
“We’ve slowly been rebuilding the place as we’ve grown,” said Olson, whose salon is known for its “blow dry bar,” a collection of styles fit for the before-and-after pictures Olson is fond of displaying online.
“The stations have gotten their fair share of use out of them,” she said. “We’re looking to update everything. We’re very excited for Maurices to help liven up this end of downtown.”
The move to a new era
The excitement within the company is palpable, too. People who have had offices for decades are being asked to consider what they’re going to bring to the new place; they’ll soon be deciding what to include in about two fruit boxes’ worth of personal items that will make the move to the new building.
In front of them is a future with open floorplans, natural light, harbor vistas, a private gym and an open-air balcony that looks to be the iconic feature in the new building.
“The associates are excited,” said Laura Sieger, Maurices associate vice president of communications. “A modern workplace is appealing.”
Already, the company has scheduled an important meeting in the new building with its parent company, Ascena Retail Group, and its other properties - Dressbarn, Justice, Lane Bryant and Catherines - for June 2016.
Computers, carpeting, light fixtures, all the interior tables and chairs, microphones, speakers, lavatory equipment and desks are all going out to bid right now.
“Think about decorating your house - it’s like that on steroids,” Thun said.
Building east to west, the sixth floor concrete pours are currently ongoing. After that will come the final concrete pours for the cap of the parking garage. Then comes the steel-beam construction of the offices, which Thun likened to “an erector set.”
“It goes up pretty quickly,” he said.
The building is on schedule to be enclosed by September - metal skin on the garage, two tones of glass on the offices.
To date, the behemoth structure has used 12,500 cubic yards of concrete, 740 tons of reinforced steel and 81 miles of the post-tension cable used in prestressed concrete that allows for longer spans with fewer supports.
The building has taken shape now to the point that its enormity is in play. It dwarfs its surroundings for its horizontal heft and vertical lift.
“We’re getting a feel for what this thing is going to be,” Thun said. “You don’t appreciate the size until it starts going up.”
The Superior Street entryway has revealed itself to be a gallant feature that’s undersold on artist renderings angled in perspective to concentrate on the whole of the building. A person will walk into Maurices headquarters to find a soaring ceiling. Even a walk past the building will allow for pedestrians to peer inside large glass panes at the hustle and bustle of Duluth at its most cosmopolitan.
Driving into Duluth from the west, the building adds what Sieger called “an iconic gate,” to the city’s visage. It’s something Mayor Don Ness first said in January 2014, when the building’s design was unveiled. He called it a transformative cornerstone building that “holds extraordinary symbolic importance” for the city.
For 84 years, Maurices has been headquartered in downtown Duluth. But it’s been bricked off from the lake and people outside its walls.
Soon, the company will connect with its city in a whole new way.
The best view of the new Maurices headquarters might come from out on the water at night.
Its seven main vertical supports - stiff columns that pinstripe the facade - will light at the tips and draw attention to a whole new era.
Said Thun, “That’ll be a cool look from the harbor.”
Standing and supported like a facade on the set of a Western movie, there is a scaled-down mock-up of the new Maurices building on a pier near Bayfront Park.
It’s a materials mock-up, Maurices Chief Financial Officer Brian Thun said, upon which the contractors test materials such as glass, brick, caulk, windows and metal skin to see how it will look in real life and not just on artists’ renderings.
“It’s really an approval sample,” Thun said.