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'Images' captures unique side of Duluth's heritage

It's tough to live in Duluth and not get some sense of the place's history. I mean, it's woven into the way the city is packaged for tourists, and the effects of the region's history linger in our economy and in our population.

It's tough to live in Duluth and not get some sense of the place's history. I mean, it's woven into the way the city is packaged for tourists, and the effects of the region's history linger in our economy and in our population.
One place to find traces of that history is architecture -- most every part of Duluth has a few historic buildings, and downtown Duluth has a bunch of them.
I'm a walker, and glancing at buildings as I go by is a habit I've developed. I wonder sometimes just what those upper stories are used for now -- apartments? storage space? rat habitat? -- and what they were used for in the past.
When I reviewed Michael Fedo's book about the lynchings, one of the first things I did was walk down from the Budgeteer offices to the old police station and the nearby corner where the lynching took place; seeing the building still standing there, wondering if the chinks in the stone were caused that dreadful day, locked the horror of it all in my mind.
As a journalist covering and following the news in Duluth, it's hard to miss the discussions about preservation, which have arisen in the context of controversy surrounding construction of the Technology Village, development at the Norshor Theatre and potential salvation for the Armory building.
Despite these experiences, or maybe because of them, I was a bit agnostic on the whole question of historic preservation going into this book. Clearly the heritage of a place is something important, and the experience of it can be profoundly moving as the old Duluth police building is to this day for me.
But clearly there is also a place for new buildings. Whatever the politics and economics surrounding the place, few people can go by the uphill, eastern corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street and not conclude it looks better than it did a few years back, despite the loss of a couple of cool old buildings. (What surrounded the couple of cool ones were a couple of really awful looking ones that, unfortunately, dominated Duluth's most memorable corner.)
Most would agree that corner probably offers more possibilities for Duluth's future because of the new building, too.
So there must be some sort of magical balance. And I'm happy to say that "Images of America: Duluth, Minnesota," by Sheldon T. Aubut and Maryanne C. Norton, offers a lot of insight that can contribute to finding that balance.
Aubut, a long-time advocate for Duluth's historic buildings, is probably the better known of the two, but both are historians affiliated with several organizations, including the Duluth Preservation Alliance.
They have cobbled together hundreds of historic photos depicting Duluth's historic architecture -- what's still standing and what has already been lost -- in a readable, engaging book, arranged by neighborhood.
I found myself reacting to many of these buildings and learning a lot. Upon seeing the opera house, I only wish I could have seen it and experienced it. It burned in 1889.
Ditto for the Lyceum Theater, which was demolished in 1966 for reasons that were not given. It was such a landmark that parts of it are still around -- for instance, the lions that guard the Duluth Zoo.
Some of the buildings that are still around are noteworthy -- the grandeur of Duluth Denfeld High School and the Hotel Duluth (where Greysolon Plaza is now). I had just walked by the Wirth Building on Superior Street and noticed it, and getting a little background was nice.
On the other hand, I'm thankful the Norshor Theatre is missing its enormous light tower, which Aubut and Norton report was visible from 60 miles away in its heyday. It's plenty bright for me even in our small city.
Churches, schools, mansions and rail yards -- all find a place in this book, and the stories are almost all interesting.
It would be only too easy to overlook the level of scholarship present in this book, but it's worth noting: Gathering together such a tremendous collection of facts and stories in an accurate fashion is time-consuming, demanding work, and Norton and Aubut deserve congratulations for it. Area history buffs will appreciate it.
Historians may also find enjoyment reading about the history of architects in early Duluth. Many of them, drawn by the big money being made in the area, were very well known, and some well-known architects from other places left a mark in Duluth.
Despite at least Aubut's well-known stance on historic preservation, this book carries few political overtones -- one caustic reference to progress in quotation marks in an introduction is all I recall -- and focuses on good scholarship.
Coming out of the book, I think the community can find it a valuable and readable reference in balancing historic preservation in our community.
Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@
duluth.com or 723-1207.

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