“Duluth is The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” That silver-tongued oratory spilled from the lips of Thomas Preston Foster, founder of the first newspaper in town, on the occasion of the Fourth of July celebration in 1869. Foster spoke before 3,500 people - six months earlier on New Year’s Day there were 14 families in Duluth which was experiencing the greatest growth spurt in the United States at the time.

French fur traders had been the first Europeans to visit the western Great Lakes back in the early 1600s. Daniel Greysolon, the Sieur de Lhut, had explored the Saint Louis River in 1679 and left his name behind for the scattering of outposts around the natural harbor. But by the middle of the 19th century it was copper and timber that was luring investors to the young settlement. Most notable was a land speculator and railroad builder out of Philadelphia named Jay Cooke.

When Cooke connected Duluth via rail to the main line of the northern continental railroad the port became the only one in the United States to be connected to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. There was no doubt that Foster’s Zenith City was destined to zip past Chicago and become the leading city of the American midwest. No doubt at least until the financial panic of 1873 collapsed Cooke’s empire and Duluth seemed more likely to disappear from maps altogether than emerge as a dominant metropolis.

But there was too much mineral wealth in northern Minnesota to stub Duluth out entirely. By the dawn of the 20th century the port in Duluth was handling more tonnage than New York City or Chicago. The streets were filled with millionaires and U.S. Steel invested $5 million in a new plant on the shores of Lake Superior. The high grade iron ore would play out and send Duluth’s economy spiraling downhill again but it would take more than a half century to do so.

In the latter decades of the 20th century Zenith City would resurrect itself once again as a tourist destination. A sixteen-block chunk of downtown from the glory days of the late 1800s and early 1900s was designated a National Register Historic District. More than 100 buildings arrayed along Superior and First streets provide a classroom in Victorian and Classical Revival architecture. Most of our walking tour will concentrate along those streets but we will start with landmarks of civic pride from a more recent era...  

Duluth Civic Center
515 West First Street

In 1908 iconic American architect Daniel Burnham was called up from Chicago to oversee construction of the new Saint Louis County Courthouse. Instead Burnham, who pioneered the City Beautiful movement in the United States, offered a grander vision for the city. Burnham proposed a grouping of grand Neoclassical buildings with a federal building and city hall flanking the courthouse. The new house of justice rose five stories and six on the lower slope of the hill with orders of both Ionic and Doric columns. The entire composition was dressed in pink New Hampshire granite. The courthouse was the only building Burnham saw completed; he died at the age of 66 in 1912. The U.S. Post Office, Courthouse and Custom House (to the left when facing the central courthouse) and City Hall (to the right) are near mirror images of one another across the plaza. Local architects T.J. Selfchik and Otto N. Olsen executed City Hall and James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, drew the plans for the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building. They were not ready for full occupation until 1930.


Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Civic Center Mall center

Beginning his career in Minnesota, Cass Gilbert resides in the pantheon of American architects with iconic skyscrapers like New York City’s Woolworth Building, three state capitols and the United States Supreme Court building on his resume. Gilbert designed this memorial to Duluth’s overseas soldiers and sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett created the “Patriotism Guards the Flag” at its base. The installation was dedicated in 1919; the fountain was a 1960 addition.


Duluth News Tribune
424 West First Street at northeast corner of 5th Avenue

Duluth’s major daily newspaper can trace its roots back to 1869 and the town’s first weekly paper, The Duluth Minnesotian. Thomas Preston Foster, an editor of the St. Paul Minnesotian, helmed the operation. The latest in a long line of mergers occurred in 1982 when the News-Tribune and The Duluth-Herald came together. The paper has occupied this lot since the 1960s when the McKay Hotel that had stood here since 1901 was torn down. The hotel’s greatest notoriety came in 1926 and 1927 when the Duluth Eskimos represented the city in the National Football League and used the McKay as a clubhouse. Their practice field was across the street on the spot where City Hall was constructed. After a 1-8 season in 1927 owner Ole Haugsrud sold the team back to the league.


Duluth Public Library
520 West Superior Street at southwest corner of 5th Avenue

Award-winning Latvian-born architect Gunnar Brikerts gave Duluth its current public library in 1980. Known for its resemblance to a Great Lakes ore boat, the building is unfortunately about as energy efficient as an actual ore boat and its continued existence is precarious.

Duluth Union Depot
506 West Michigan Street at southeast corner of 5th Avenue

Union Depot earned its name by serving seven different rail lines during its eight-decade lifetime as an active passenger station. This is the second depot to stand on this site; the esteemed Boston architectural firm of Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns replaced the 1870 original with this French Norman-inspired confection. Completed in 1892 the Massachusetts designers took advantage of local granite, sandstone and yellow brick to assemble the turreted depot. The final bill was $615,000. The last passengers boarded in 1969 and after the Union Depot dodged the wrecking ball long enough it was rescued with five million dollars to become the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. Amtrak continued to provide service until 1985 when all passenger rail connections to Duluth were ended. 


Ordean Building
424 West Superior Street

From 1889 until demolition crews arrived in 1963 the Spalding Hotel lived here, the kind of place where the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey signed the guest register. Less than a block from the train station passengers were greeted by seven grand stories of brown sandstone and terra cotta designed by Chicago architect James J. Egan. The 200-room showcase hotel was replaced with this seven-story modernist office building.  

Providence Building
332 West Superior Street

John J. Wangenstein was born in Norway in 1858 and arrived in Duluth when he was 24 years old. He spent the next 59 years until his death in the city, most of them as one of Duluth’s most prolific architects. Wangenstein designed this building in 1894 during a three-year stretch when he partnered with William E. Baillie. Wangenstein and Baillie’s building is unrecognizable today, stripped of all its ornamentation. It is also three floors higher than the original thanks to a regular series of alterations.   

Medical Arts Building
324 West Superior Street

Two different St. Louis Hotels stood here. The 1882 model burned in 1893 and the replacement was torn down to make way for Duluth’s only major commercial expression of Art Deco architecture. At 191 feet, the office space for physicians and dentists is the second tallest office building in downtown Duluth.

Alworth Building
306-310 West Superior Street

This 16-story, 247-foot high skyscraper was the tallest building in Minnesota outside of Minneapolis when it was raised in 1910. More than a century later it remains Duluth’s sky king and the tallest mid-block building in the state. The designer was superstar architect Daniel Burnham who delivered a stylish Neoclassical design for his only high-rise commission in Minnesota. The money man behind the project was 64-year old Marshall H. Alworth. Born in upstate New York, Alworth was working on Great Lakes ships when he was fourteen years old and was able to acquire land and timber rights around Lake Superior. In 1893 he organized the Alworth Mining and Development Company to manage his extensive investments on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Duluth’s tallest tower cost Alworth $500,000. He didn’t have to pay any overtime - from groundbreaking to occupation took only nine months despite a winter construction schedule.    

Lonsdale Building
300 West Superior Street

Cincinnati-born William A. Hunt grew up in one of the great American cities for architecture in the 19th century and began practicing himself in Minneapolis. In 1892 when he was 33 years old Hunt came to Duluth to join the prestigious firm of Emmet Palmer and Lucien P. Hall. Hunt designed the first six floors of this corner high-rise in 1894 and added three more to his Renaissance Revival design in 1906. The original base was destroyed when a polished stone addition meant to unify the Lonsdale Building with the Alworth Building next door was added.

Wells Fargo Building
226-232 West Superior Street at northwest corner of 3rd Avenue

This was Duluth’s first modern high-rise, added to the streetscape in 1956. The 152-foot office tower, clad in light brown limestone, replaced the seven decades-old American Exchange Building that was a legacy of architect Oliver Traphagen.    

Minnesota National Bank
222 West Superior Street

Architects Emmet S. Palmer and Lucien P. Hall designed this Romanesque-styled commercial building in 1893 for a hardware business. When the Minnesota National Bank came along a generation later the directors just slapped a Neoclassical facade on the first two stories and started taking deposits.

The Herald Building
220 West Superior Street

Milie Bunnell started up the Duluth Herald in 1883, reviving a newspaper nameplate that had come and gone in Duluth’s earliest days. For the next hundred years the Herald brought Duluth its news in the evenings until it was absorbed by the Duluth News Tribune in 1982. In 1893 Bunnell erected this tan Neoclassical-flavored building for his newspaper using brick and limestone. The architects were Oliver G. Traphagen & Francis W. Fitzpatrick. The Herald moved in 1902, leaving its name in the cornice. Since then an almost century-long string of eateries have occupied this space.        

Sellwood Building
202 West Superior Street 

Joseph Sellwood hailed from England before sailing to the America in 1856 when he was 18 years old. He went to work in the iron mines of New Jersey which prepped him for later work in the copper mines of the upper Midwest. He made his way to Duluth in 1888 and by the turn of the century Sellwood was running every mine for Andrew Carnegie’s American Steel and Wire Company. In 1908 he hired William Allen Hunt and bankrolled the construction of this early-style skyscraper.      

Hunter Building
31 West Superior Street at northwest corner of 1st Avenue

The core of this corner structure dates to 1872 but a constant bowing to changing trends has rendered it unrecognizable from those days.

Wirth Building
13 West Superior Street

Max Wirth was a successful pharmacist in Duluth who happened to have a brother living down in St. Paul who was an accomplished architect. He coaxed his brother George north in 1886 to design a three-story, mid-block building for his business with living space upstairs, as was the norm for 19th century American shopkeepers. George Wirth, who studied architecture at Cornell College, tapped the Romanesque style with trademark rough-faced and multi-chromatic stone, a dominant arch an prominent gable. George Wirth remained in St. Paul but wore out the railroad to Duluth and designed several prominent buildings in the city including the Grand Opera House, the Board of Trade and many commercial blocks. The pharmacy remained active until 1940.

Silberstein & Bondy Dry Goods Company
9-11 West Superior Street

This is the third and last of George Wirth’s buildings still standing in Duluth although the architect would likely not recognize his creation today. Wirth built it with just two stories of brick and red sandstone. Frederick German altered the composition in 1902 when he designed a third floor. Yet another story came along in the 1920s. The client was Bernard Silberstein, who opened Duluth’s first general store. Silberstein was born in Hungary in 1848 and sailed to America when he was 18 years old. He was in Duluth four years later selling goods door to door. When he retrieved his Hungarian wife Nettie from Detroit the Silbersteins were said to be the first bridal couple to begin their new lives in Duluth. Bernard organized Silberstein and Bondy in 1881 and moved into these quarters in 1884, shepherding its fortunes into one of the Northwest’s largest department stores. Nettie outlived Bernard by a decade and their dry goods business closed down after her death in 1932. The building put in another half-century as a retail establishment.      

Bell & Eyster Bank
3 West Superior Street

In addition to his brother’s pharmacy George Wirth designed three other buildings on the west side of this block of Superior Street. This is the only one left extant besides the Wirth Pharmacy building - in fact there are only three of George Wirth’s considerable 19th century output that have not been demolished. The ground level has been severely compromised but you can look up to see the original Romanesque styling fashioned with sandstone blocks. This souvenir from 1883 that helps make up the earliest section of Old Downtown was first occupied by Henry H. Bell and William Eyster who organized their bank in 1877 and handled the city’s deposits. The bank, however, disappeared in a financial crisis in 1891.

Weiland Block
26 East Superior Street

Oliver G. Traphagen, a New York native, emerged as one of the star architects of early boomtown Duluth. This four-story mid-block commercial building was one of his early designs. Originally created for a furniture store, the building has been extensively renovated. His daughter’s ill health forced a relocation to Hawaii in 1897 where he was responsible for many of the islands’ landmark buildings. 

Old Duluth City Jail and City Hall
126-132 East Superior Street

Oliver G. Traphagen got the commission from a proud city government to design both a City Hall and next door a Police Station and Jail after its city charter was re-established in 1887 following ten years of insolvency. Traphagen tapped elements of the Richardsonian Romanesque style popular for impressive civic buildings of the day. City Hall (on the corner at #132) was ready first in 1889. Traphagen’s directions were to make the brownstone police station look different, but similar; it was finished in 1891. The government moved on in the late 1920s but not before Duluth’s first skywalk was installed that enabled prisoners to shuttle easily between jail and the courthouse. It is still visible between the buildings. The jail continued to house guests of the city until 1941 when the state of Minnesota condemned it.

Sears, Roebuck and Company/Fond-du-luth Casino
125-131 East Superior Street at southwest corner of N 2nd Avenue E

Minnesota native Richard Warren Sears launched the world’s largest mail order empire from a railroad station in Redwood Falls on the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway. Sears, Roebuck and Company arrived in downtown Duluth in this building in 1929. Their department store of cream brick and terra cotta featured traces of contemporary Art Deco styling. Sears went out of business here in 1984 and the city ceded the property to the Fond du Lac band of Objibwa/Chippewa Indians to open a casino. The neon affectations were added in 1994 but the upper floors remain unaltered, including the decorative finials.

Temple Opera Block
201 East Superior Street at northwest corner of N 2nd Avenue E

Duluth’s Masons were busy on this corner in the late 1880s. The Temple Opera Block, built of six stories of heavy brownstone with an ornate Moorish dome, was completed in 1889. At the same time the Temple Opera House was constructed up the hill behind the corner block. The Opera House burned in 1895 and was eventually replaced with the Neoclassical-styled Orpheum Theatre in 1910. In 1942 the top two floors and dome were shorn off the Temple Opera Block leaving the powerful entry arch and polished stone columnettes that were hallmarks of its Richardsonian Romanesque style.        

Norshor Theatre
211 East Superior Street

This mid-block movie house began life in 1910 as a vaudeville theater. The current appearance dates to a 1940 makeover by the architectural firm of Liebenburg & Kaplan. Jacob Liebenberg was born in Milwaukee in 1893 to German immigrant parents and was a member of the first graduating class of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in 1916. After a stint in the Air Force Liebenberg returned to teach at the university and formed a partnership with a student, Seeman Kaplan. Kaplan handled the engineering details and Liebenberg provided the design talents. Liebenberg and Kaplan created over 200 elaborate theaters in the Midwest. The Norshor once boasted a 64-foot tower illuminated by 3,000 lights that made it visible for sixty miles. The tower was torn down in 1967. Restorations are now in the works.   

Hotel Duluth/Greysolon Plaza
219-231 East Superior Street

Walter Schroeder began his working life in 1892 at the age of 14 clerking in the Office of the Milwaukee Register of Deeds. Young Schroeder did more than file papers; he spent a bit of time reading documents as well. As an adult he naturally segued into real estate, building six landmark hotels across Wisconsin. In 1925 Schroeder came to Duluth and set about constructing the tallest building in the Northwest with 14 stories and 500 hotel rooms. He hired his go-to architect, Swedish transplant Martin Tullgren, to design the grand hotel with a classical Italian Renaissance flavor. The ballroom is one of the most sumptuous public spaces in Duluth and in 1955 the popular Black Bear Lounge was added, named for a 1929 incident when a hungry bruin followed a fish truck into town and then veered off through the plate glass window of the Hotel Duluth coffee shop. In 1963, just weeks before his assassination, John F. Kennedy visited the shores of Lake Superior and his entire entourage commandeered the 14th floor. The hotel shuttered in 1979 but was quickly converted into 150 high-demand apartments named for namesake explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Luth. 


First Presbyterian Church
300 2nd Street E at northeast corner of 3rd Avenue

Luke Marvin organized this congregation in 1869, delivering his sermons from a sewing machine in his house that doubled as a podium. The church grew slowly until funds were available to raise this standout Richardsonian Romanesque-styled church, executed in sandstone, in 1891. The architect was Duluth’s leading designer of the age, Oliver Traphagen.  The historic meeetinghouse features such hallmarks of the style as a massive arched entryway, gables and a dominant corner tower. The Tiffany windows are the handiwork of Duluth artist Anne Weston and the detailed exterior carvings were chiseled by George Thrana.


Central High School
northwest corner of Lake Avenue and 2nd Street

Indiana native Emmet Palmer and Cincinnati-born Lucien P. Hall joined up in the 1880s to form one of Duluth’s most dynamic architectural pairings during the boom days of the late 1800s. Palmer and Hall designed most of Duluth’s public school buildings until Hall retired in 1903; this Richardsonian Romanesque tour de force was their masterpiece. Completed in 1892 at the height of the style’s popularity for imposing public buildings Central High School features many of the hallmark features championed by namesake architect Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston, Massachusetts - rough-cut stone, rounded windows, powerful entry arches, roof gables and towers, including the 230-foot central clock tower. The final price tag was $460,000 which included the school’s own creamery and greenhouse. The building served Duluth’s scholastic needs until the 1970s when it was retired for administrative duty.

Carnegie Library
101 West 2nd Street at southwest corner of 1st Avenue

After selling his U.S. Steel company for $400 million and becoming the world’s richest man, Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie set out to give away all his money. One of his pet projects was public libraries. He funded over 2,500 of them around the world, including 65 in Minnesota. Only seven states received more of Carnegie’s largesse. Duluth got $75,000 for its main library that was the second building for the city’s public book collection that was established in 1889. The first books were lent in town twenty years earlier courtesy of the privately assembled Duluth Library Association. The industrialist’s initial gift was for $50,000 which would have paid for a library designed by pioneer city architects Edwin Radcliffe and Charles Willoughby but city leaders favored a larger building from Adolph Rudolph, an architect and drawing teacher at Duluth Central High School. Carnegie upped his offer by an additional $25,000. Work on the Neoclassical book depository began in 1901 with brownstone hauled from quarries at Flag River, Wisconsin. Dedication took place on April 19, 1902. The city was outgrowing the facility by the 1920s and branches were opened. In 1980 the Carnegie Library was replaced by a modern central library; it was sold to private interests that converted the turn-of-the-20th century icon into office space. 

Masonic Temple
4 West Second Street

The Palestine Lodge #79 has been a part of Duluth life since the beginning in 1869. The Masons first met in a frame structure but settled into the flashy Temple Opera Building in 1889. Forced out by fire the Masons hired esteemed architect John J. Wangenstein to create this lodge in 1904. Wangenstein’s vision was much grander than what is seen today - the building once boasted Moorish onion domes at each corner on the roof. 

202 West 2nd Street at southeast corner of 3rd Avenue

The Young Women’s Christian Association in Duluth traces its beginnings back to 1893. Canadian-born architect Frederick C. German learned his trade in New York City design shops in the 1880s before coming to Duluth to work as a draftsman in the busy practice of Oliver Traphagen. In 1905 German teamed up with A. Werner Lignell and the design duo quickly won several downtown commissions, including this one in 1908. The plans for the Second Renaissance Revival style building included space for residences a lunchroom that served 370 meals a day, a pool and a fitness area.  


Wolvin Building/Missabe Building
225-231 West 1st Street at northwest corner of 3rd Avenue

Augustus B. Wolvin went to work on the Great Lakes as a cabin boy at the age of ten and by his maturity at age 21 in 1878 he was a master of his own vessel. By the 1880s he was off the water and in the general vessel commission business. When the dominant Great Lakes lines came together in 1901 to form the Pittsburgh Steamship Company Wolvin was named vice-president and general manager of the enterprise. A year later he bankrolled the construction of the Wolvin Building that at first featured six Neoclassical stories designed by Norwegian architect John J. Wangerstein. Later William Hunt raised the commercial building to its current height. One of Wolvin’s biggest space renters turned out to be several subsidiary companies of of U.S. Steel and the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad - direct competitors of their landlord who took over the operations of the Duluth Blast Furnace Company. 

Board of Trade
301-307 West 1st Street at southwest corner of 3rd Avenue

The Duluth Board of Trade was founded in 1881 and this building, erected in 1894, was their fourth home. The previous Board of Trade had burned and architects Oliver Traphagen and Francis Fitzpatrick designed this beefy, seven-story Romanesque Revival structure as a replacement. Crafted of Portage red sandstone and brick, the East Indian-inspired carvings above the entryway were executed by local master mason George Thana. The final tab for this downtown stalwart was $350,000. Fire struck again in 1948, costing the Board of Trade its elaborate cornice at its crown.

Elk’s Club
309-311 West 1st Street

The long-respected benevolent society actually got its start in New York City in 1867 by a group of actors who were looking for an excuse to get together and drink on Sundays when imbibing alcohol was illegal on the Sabbath. They called themselves the Jolly Corks. Elks Club #133 moved into this distinguished clubhouse in 1906. The ground floor has been totally compromised but you can look up and see the quartet of fluted Doric columns and classical detailing that architects Edwin Radcliffe and Vernon Price provided the building.   

Duluth Commercial Club
402 West 1st Street

Architects William Bray and Carl Nystrom were best known for their residential work but they ornamented the downtown Duluth streetscape with this Neoclassical effort in 1908. The clients were the Duluth Commercial Club, a business-promoting outfit that provided congenial meeting space for local businessmen. When the Duluth Athletic Club took possession of the property in the 1940s the original brick facade was dressed in stone.