'Contemporary Victorian' home pioneered downtown living in Duluth

Some say today's trend of living in downtown Duluth started with Ruth and Bud Darling. In the early 1990s, the Chicago natives purchased the long-neglected Wirth Building at 13 W. Superior St. With the help of an architect, they restored one of t...

Some say today's trend of living in downtown Duluth started with Ruth and Bud Darling.

In the early 1990s, the Chicago natives purchased the long-neglected Wirth Building at 13 W. Superior St. With the help of an architect, they restored one of the city's oldest buildings, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We were the first to do it in a big way," Ruth said of renovations to create downtown living. "People thought we were nuts. The people in the [city] Planning Department scratched their head and said, 'You're going to live there, too?' "

The project took four years and cost several hundred thousand dollars. Outside, they restored the building's original storefront, currently home to Lizzard's Art Gallery. Inside, they retained the building's Victorian stylings, such as wide baseboards, picture railings and rosette detailing in woodwork, while modernizing it for their living needs.

Although updated, it still has the feel of an 1886 building, said local historian Maryanne Norton.


Members of the public can see for themselves Sept. 21, when the couple's two-story, 4,000-square-foot apartment is among seven sites featured on this year's Duluth Preservation Alliance's tour of historic homes.

"It's one of the gems of the downtown historic district," Norton said of the Wirth Building. "It's a really good example of Richardsonian Romanesque Revival that was so popular in the 1880s. It's just a wonderful, wonderful building."

News Tribune readers agreed in 2001 when they voted it one of the top 10 buildings in the city for its architecture.

Since the Darlings renovated the building back to its original configuration -- an upstairs apartment for themselves, second-floor offices and street-level storefront -- other downtown buildings have been refurbished into living spaces. New condominiums and apartments also have been created.

"We took a chance on downtown Duluth," Bud said. "Being from Chicago, we had seen a similar trend down there. And we had a sense that other downtowns were doing it."

The building was built in 1886 for Max Wirth to house his pharmacy on the first floor and his family on the third. The second floor was broken up into small offices for professionals. For 20 years, that included Dr. Mary McCoy, the city's first woman doctor.

Although narrow -- just 25 feet wide and 100 feet long -- the brownstone designed by Wirth's brother, George, has a heavy appearance with its rough-cut brownstone, carved stone detailing and stone turret-shaped columns. Arched windows, a balcony rimmed with wrought-iron railing and a second-floor bay window add elegance.

After the Wirth pharmacy closed in 1940, a series of businesses and restaurants operated on the street level. After the family sold the building in the early 1950s, the upper floors became a rooming house.


The building had been vacant nearly a decade when the Darlings bought it in 1990 to turn it into their home and an office for Bud, a certified public accountant.

At 104 years old, the building was in bad shape: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, exposed wires, rickety stairs.Windows were gone and boarded up. And it was full of junk.

But the woodwork and the second-floor oak staircase illuminated by a large skylight caught their eyes and their imaginations.

"We were intrigued with the potential of the building, even when it was vacant and trashed," said Bud, 68. "You could see the potential with the old woodwork and the staircase."

"It was the ability to walk in and look beyond all the stuff and have a vision," said Ruth, 67.

An engineer found the building to be solid. The couple researched the building's history and hired Duluth architect Larry Turbes, who carried out their vision of "contemporary Victorian."

Among the first projects in the city to use federal tax credits for restorations, work began in 1991. The building was gutted. Layers of false ceilings were removed to reveal 12-foot ceilings. New heating, plumbing and electrical systems were installed and original gas pipes for lights removed. Interior walls were reconfigured to open up living space. Old doors, beyond repair, were replaced with new, period-style ones using the old cast-iron hinges. Original transom and interior windows were salvaged and reused. Woodwork that had never been painted was cleaned up and varnished. Woodwork whose detailing was hidden by many layers of paint was stripped and repainted. The maple floors were sanded and refinished.

Outside, the roof was replaced, sandstone blocks tuck-pointed and a rear courtyard created. But the most dramatic change for observers was the restoration of the original storefront that had been partially covered and altered decades ago.


"We're lucky the exterior was not completely reworked from the original design," Norton said of previous owners' alterations. "You look at old pictures and look at the building today, and you know it's the same building."

CANDACE RENALLS is at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail:

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