In 2008, newly elected Duluth Mayor Don Ness proposed a raft of painful cuts and asset sales to help the city through a severe and sudden budget crunch. Many of those unpleasant decisions came to pass, but Ness’ controversial proposal to auction off a pair of Tiffany stained-glass windows was rejected.
Now, 12 years later, the same windows are back in the news, as the city faces a new financial crisis.
Mayor Emily Larson apprised the Duluth City Council on Monday of the financial challenges the city faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As she shared projections of a $25 million budget shortfall, Larson also discussed potential sources of revenue, such as the sale of real estate or even objects of value, specifically referencing the pair of Tiffany stained-glass windows.
When the News Tribune asked to speak with Larson in greater depth about the prospect of selling city assets, including the windows, Friday, she declined and instead issued a statement.
“The city is doing its due diligence in understanding its current or future options regarding all assets. That process has not been completed yet," she said.
As he read of the windows, former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson described feeling a pang of regret that more hadn’t been done to protect the historic pieces of art from ever being offered for sale.
“These historical and heritage items that belong to the people of Duluth and St. Louis County should not be used now or in the future to fill a budget hole. I believed that when I was on the City Council, and I believe it today,” Anderson said.
During Ness’ tenure some had estimated the pair of windows would fetch between $1 million and $3 million at auction.
Anderson considers that an inflated value, but said: “That doesn’t even matter to me, even if we could get $3 million, these are pieces of history that belong to the citizens, and we shouldn’t be putting them up for sale.”
In 2011, Anderson helped to pass a resolution authorizing the St. Louis County Historical Society to serve as the caretaker of the windows and to put them on long-term public display at the Depot. The 15-year agreement is set to expire at the end of 2026. But one of the terms of the agreement states that either party (the city or the historical society) can terminate the arrangement without cause by way of a 90-day written notice.
So far, no such notice of intent has been communicated to the society either formally or informally, said JoAnne Coombe, executive director of the organization.
She also suggested previous estimates of the windows’ monetary value were wildly unrealistic. Coombe noted that they are insured for a total of $300,000, per the terms of the agreement which calls on the society to provide insurance coverage “for an amount equal or greater than the most recent professionally appraised value of the subject windows.”
The agreement also requires the insurance coverage to be reviewed and approved by the Duluth City Attorney’s Office, as it was July 26, 2019.
Wade Lawrence, an art historian and former director of Glensheen Mansion now living in Florida, expressed skepticism that anyone would pay more than six figures for the stained-glass windows.
“Typically, you insure a work of art for more than it’s worth," he said.
He also noted that, “The market is soft on stained glass right now.”
Monetary value set aside, Lawrence ascribed great value to the windows as works of art, especially one depicting the Native princess Minnehaha. Both windows were designed by Anne Weston, an artist who Lawrence has studied extensively and who once made her home in Duluth.
“They were designed by a woman at a time when women didn’t really have much influence in the world of art,” he said.
“The Minnehaha window she designed specifically for installation at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and that was a pivotal moment for Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Glass,” Lawrence said.
“The window itself is an encyclopedia of the techniques that Louis Comfort Tiffany was using in his windows. There’s drapery glass. There are quartz pebbles. There’s all kinds of plating and iridescent glass. The whole vocabulary of Tiffany windows is on that Minnehaha window. It’s unique. There’s not another window similar to that anywhere in the world,” he said.
The Minnehaha window also has significance to Indigenous people, said Michele Beeksma, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and president of the St. Louis County Historical Society.
The window was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” a poem based on the writings of Henry Schoolcraft, an ethnologist who had collected area Anishinaabe stories.
“These are stories we still tell today, and it’s honoring our storytelling tradition,” Beeksma said.
The other Weston-designed window on display at the Depot was commissioned by the Duluth Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1904 and depicts the scene French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut likely encountered when he arrived in Duluth.
The pair of windows hung in the Carnegie Library until Duluth built a newer downtown library.
Beeksma said the two pieces can serve as a springboard for useful if difficult discussion, as Greysolon claimed the land for France under the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which held that Europeans could lay claim to any lands not owned by Christians.
“From an Anishinaabe perspective, that’s something we want to talk about,” she said.
Beeksma questioned the idea of selling the windows: “Why lose these pieces of our history and culture for a small sum of money that’s not even going solve the city’s budget problem?”
Coombe said the windows probably require another $25,000 to $100,000 in restoration services, further diminishing their monetary value.
As people look further into the prospect of selling the windows, Coombe expressed confidence they will abandon the idea.
“When the facts come out, reasonable people make reasonable decisions,” she said.