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Our View: Duluth Armory's long-sought rehab a 'go'

From the editorial: "It may be hard to believe the Armory really can be saved this time, that its reuse really is still possible. ... (But) there’s certainly plenty of reason for optimism."

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Artist's rendering courtesy of the Armory Arts and Music Center / Plans to renovate and reuse the Duluth Armory on London Road include a brewpub patio along 13th Avenue East.
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Across the street from sprawling Lake Superior, the Duluth Armory was built in 1915, not just with bricks and mortar but with both the military and entertainment needs of our community in mind.

It was also built over a river, and by the turn of the following century, by 2002, the Armory was so far gone that the running, bubbling river could be seen through a decaying, pockmarked basement floor.

“I have to tell you, I did not see the vision (then for the Armory’s future),” Twin Cities developer George Sherman recalled last month. “It had just all kinds of physical damage and pigeons and mud. … I thought the building was going to fall down into the river, so I couldn’t imagine how someone could rehab it.”

Long before he led the restoration of the NorShor Theater and the construction of the downtown Sheraton Duluth Hotel, Sherman was celebrated for his historic preservation work and successful redevelopment projects. In 2002, however, after inspecting the Duluth Armory, he proposed tearing it down and putting up an apartment building in its place. The city instead gave the condemned building and its demolition order to a grassroots local nonprofit hellbent on saving it.

“I am glad the city did not pick us,” Sherman said in an interview with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.

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That’s because, late last year, at the urging of that grassroots group, the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center, and others, Sherman returned to Duluth for another look. And his perspective changed. He’s now on board as developer of an estimated $25 million worth of rehab work at the Armory that will ensure its future as a landmark and as a treasured gathering place for our city. Sherman’s involvement — announced like an early present in the days before Christmas — and his record of success fuel optimism for the future of the Armory like never before.

“We’ll have to work hard … but I think we can bring this one home,” the arts and music center’s Nelson French said in the interview, which was held virtually. “We are now at a juncture where all systems appear to be ‘go.’ The energy and the synergy are coming together.”

“Sometimes when you first look at something, you don’t see the beauty in it, and that was the case (20) years ago,” Sherman said. “Now, I see all the potential in this building. … I’m very excited about what can be done with it.”

Of course, the building he sees now is far different than in 2002. The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center has raised and invested $5 million over the years and partnered wherever it could for pro bono work to make its dollars go further. The pigeons were removed, the roof was redone, the brickwork was tuckpointed, the drill hall floor in front of the historic stage where Bob Dylan famously attended a Buddy Holly concert was rebuilt, and more. The building is solid again and no longer looks ready to fall down. Its condemnation by the city and order to be demolished have been removed. It’s ready and just waiting for work crews and reconstruction.

An expected 12 months of financing work needs to be completed first. State and federal historic tax credits, as well as new market tax credits, will be sought for the project, Sherman said, the applications for both expected to be in by June or July. These are some of the same tax credits successfully won for both the NorShor and the Sheraton projects.

In addition, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is expected to provide $7.5 million. State matching grants are expected to be available for lead and asbestos abatement. And arts and music center group members have hired a lobbyist to seek federal funds and already have raised $3.5 million to $4 million for their ambitious rehab plans.

Once work is complete, the Armory promises to be an impressive point of pride for Duluthians. The place is being reimagined for residents more so than for tourists.

Its central features are to include a food hall with eight to 10 budding restaurateurs getting their start, a community kitchen where food-truck operators and others can cook and do prep work, and a microbrewery with an outdoor deck. Food halls have proven popular in Minneapolis, Denver, and elsewhere. Sherman has been involved in successfully launching at least two. “They can be phenomenal opportunities for small businesses … (and) entrepreneurs,” he said.

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The reopened Armory is also to have spaces celebrating its past.

The DECC of its day for six decades, the Armory and its wide stage hosted entertainment giants like Bob Hope, Liberace, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, and John Philip Sousa. All of those in addition to that now-famous Buddy Holly-headlined Winter Dance Party of 1959. A museum-like space is planned beneath the historic stage to interpret and preserve it all.

A “hall of heroes” is planned on the third floor with kiosks and interactive displays telling the stories of generations of Duluthians who trained at the Armory before going to war or military service. The largest and best known was the National Guard’s 125th Field Artillery.

Also on the third floor is to be a balcony overlooking the historic stage below. Elsewhere in the behemoth of a building, plans and ideas include pickleball courts, pool tables, indoor golf, art studios, music practice rooms, space for an after-school music program that’s already operating, and a roof deck with views of the big lake. Planners have even identified space for ample parking, they said.

After many long years as an empty, hulking eyesore — with weeds sometimes so tall they tickled boarded-up windows and with a chain-link fence as unsightly outside as a prison yard — it may be hard to believe the Armory really can be saved this time, that its reuse really is still possible.

“We’ve had many many doubts over the years, too,” the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center’s Carolyn Sundquist said. “We’ve been marched to the altar with a number of developers a number of times, and I’m afraid we’ve been left at the altar. … Now it’s the right development partner and the right project with the food hall and the commercial kitchen being the right things for the community at this time.”

There’s certainly plenty of reason for optimism, despite decades of skepticism, and for our community to support, as Sherman put it, this “chance to save an important part of Duluth’s historic fabric while also making a real vibrant location.”

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Bob Dylan (2013 file / News Tribune)


RELATED / Dylan: ‘And it gave me the chills’

“When I received this Nobel Prize for literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

“If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about 18 and he was 22. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved — the music I grew up on: country western, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues, three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs, songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great, sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.

“Something about Buddy Holly seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction.

“He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than 22. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something, I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

“I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody, somebody I’d never seen before, handed me a Leadbelly record with the song ‘Cottonfields’ on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.”

— Bob Dylan, from his lecture on June 4, 2017, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, recalling seeing Buddy Holly perform at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31, 1959. Dylan was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing. His full remarks can be heard at youtube.com/watch?v=6TlcPRlau2Q .

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