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Duluth's Carnegie Library to get temporary rubber roof

Restoring the historic building's original terra cotta tile roof will be an expensive undertaking, and one potentially useful source of state assistance remains missing.

Worker hauls materials on roof.
A worker carries materials to temporarily replace the failing terra cotta roof of the Carnegie Library at 101 West Second Street in Duluth on Thursday morning, May 4, 2023.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

DULUTH โ€” The Carnegie Library building at 101 W. Second St., remains a valuable and stately local landmark. But, quite frankly, it has seen better days.

Many of the structure's terra cotta roof tiles have given way to more than a century of Duluth's cruel weather, and water infiltrating the building has caused damage within. The clay tiles are believed to date back to the library's original construction in 1902 with $75,000 in funding from the Carnegie Foundation. The building continued to operate as a library until 1981, when a new main library was built at its current location, 520 W. Superior St., and the Carnegie was converted to an office building.

CarnegiePlaster.jpg
Plaster and paint damage inside the Carnegie Library building are a testament to the structure's recent roof problems.
Peter Passi / Duluth News Tribune

The bulding's current owner and others who value Duluth's wealth of architecturally significant structures want to maintain the former public library's original character. But that's an expensive proposition.

Since it bought the library in 2013, Athenaeum Wellness Center has probably spent somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000 to repair and renovate the building, said Michael Clevette, one of the partners in the LLC.

"It hasn't been easy to keep up with things," he said, noting that improvements have included rebuilding all the parapet walls surrounding the roof, tuckpointing the exterior, shoring up a domed rotunda that had begun to leak, replacing its oculus window as well as many skylights, and installing ramps and an elevator to make the building more accessible. Ideally, Clevette said the copper on the rotunda eventually should be replaced, but the cost of that would be prohibitive.

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Worker carries materials on roof.
A worker carries materials on the back side of the Carnegie Library at 101 W. Second St. in Duluth to repair the building's leaky roof on Thursday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A critical tool that could assist with the costly reroofing job remains missing for now. The Minnesota Legislature allowed a historic tax credit that helped renovate notable old structures to expire last year , and while preservationists had hoped to see the program restored this legislative session, its fate remains in limbo.

The Minnesota Senate Tax Bill calls for the historic credits to be offered anew. But the House version of the same bill does not. The differences between the two bills will likely be reconciled in a conference committee, with the outcome still uncertain.

For his part, Gov. Tim Walz is on the record as a supporter of the historic tax credits, and the budget he earlier proposed includes funding for the program.

Clevette said the state of the Carnegie Library's roof demanded immediate action, and Athenaeum could not wait, in hopes the historic tax credits would return.

Worker stands on roof of library.
A worker checks damage on the roof of the Carnegie Library high above West Second Street in Duluth on Thursday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In the interim, Duluth's Heritage Preservation Commission has given Clevette the go-ahead to remove the terra cotta tile roof on the south end of the library building and temporarily replace it with a "stop-gap" rubber membrane roof, in hopes that adequate funds can be secured to replace the terra cotta roof in 2024.

Many of the original tiles will be reinstalled. But about 30% of them are missing or damaged beyond reuse, according to an assessment by R.W. Fern Associates Inc - AIA Architects.

Clevette said he has located matching period roof tiles in Illinois. He still doesn't have a handle on what it will cost to restore the terra cotta roof, but Clevette knows it will be expensive, and if Minnesota's historic tax credit program is reinstated in time, he said Athenaeum would be interested in pursuing support for that part of the project.

Describing his reaction to the loss of state historic tax credits, Clevette said he was "surprised and disappointed."

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"It has helped save a lot of historic properties, not just here but all over the state," he said.

Workers stands on roof.
Workers get ready to make roof repairs to the Carnegie Library high above West Second Street in Duluth on Thursday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

But Clevette assured that he and his partners remain committed to being good stewards and trying to maintain the character of the historic building in their care.

"I very much want to keep it in as close to its original state as possible," he said.

Although it has temporarily been removed, the heavy terra cotta tiles sat atop a concrete roof deck that has deteriorated in places, due to water and ice damage. But the structural integrity of the roof remains sound, according an analysis by Northland Consulting Engineers LLP.

Plans call for the concrete to be covered over with weatherproof plywood decking to provide a smooth surface for the rubber membrane to be installed and to serve as a future base for the restored terra cotta roof.

The old library now is primarily home to Accend Services Inc., which describes itself as a provider of "home- and community-based health care, mental health services, and behavioral and mental health care consulting for persons with disabilities, their families and care providers."

Accend currently employs about 75 people but previously had about double the staffing, prior to the pandemic, according to Clevette.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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