The Alworth Building: “Look Up—You Can’t Miss It”

This Month's Grand Old Building

Originally December September 2014
A postcard of the Alworth Building made some time between 1910 and 1915. (Image: Zenith City Press)

“Look Up—You Can’t Miss It,” was the slogan used to promote Duluth’s Alworth building when it first opened in in 1910. The Alworth—standing 15 stories above Superior Street and 16 above Michigan Street—was not only the tallest building in Duluth when it was first completed in May, 1910, it was the tallest building in the state and of the entire “Northwest,” as the region from Minnesota to Washington State was called at the time.

Marshall H. Alworth was already well established as a Duluth business leader by the time he first decided to construct a modern office building in 1909. Alworth was born in 1846 in Florence, New York, and left home at fourteen to work on the Great Lakes. He became a timber cruiser in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and buying up real estate for himself and business partner Wilhelm Boeing along the way. Alworth was living in Duluth as early as 1873 but, like most everyone else, left that very year after Jay Cooke’s financial failure led to the Panic of ’73. He relocated to Saginaw, Michigan, where he married Nellie LaVeigne in 1878. They moved to Duluth in 1882.

After arriving in the Zenith City, Alworth cruised for timber in what is now Minnesota’s Iron Range, and in 1893 began buying up extensive mining property under the Alworth Mining and Development Company, the same year he and Nellie built a grand Queen Anne Victorian home at 1928 East 1st Street (they would later relocate to 2605 East 7th Street). As the century ran out, Alworth had earned a fortune in mining and real estate.

The Alworth Building, photographed in 1914 by Hugh McKenzie. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Alworth became a director of Jed Washburn’s Duluth Savings Bank (not to be confused with J. C. Hunter’s 1872 Duluth Savings Bank), first organized in 1902 with some pretty powerful Duluth names joining Alworth and Washburn, including Dr. J. J. Eklund, Louis Loeb, and George French. In 1909 the bank reorganization as a national institution, and its name changed to Northern National Bank. That same year Alworth decided the new bank needed to operate out of a building worthy of the upstanding financial institution he and Washburn hoped it would become. In January, 1909, Alworth announced that he had hired local architect William A. Hunt to design and 8-story modern office building (9 stories along Michigan Street) at 306 West Superior Street, between the new 8/9-story Lonsdale Building to the east and the 11/12-story Torrey Building to the west.

If the Alworth was to stand between the Torrey and Lonsdale, three other buildings had to get out of the way. One was easy: a two-story structure—first called the “Alworth Building” by the News Tribune, later referred to as the Trust Building—that Alworth owned. The other two included a one-story building owned by the Fitger’s Brewing Company at 310 west Superior Street and the four-story King Building immediately east of the Torrey.

About the same time, renowned architect Daniel Burnham had visited Duluth and had been hired to not only design a new county courthouse, but an entire civic center of buildings. Alworth dumped Hunt for Burnham, and Burnham changed the plans. By the time they were approved, Burnham’s drawings called for a structure 15 stories high on Superior Street, 16 on Michigan, with a smaller footprint (50 x 115 feet) so that the Fitger’s and King buildings were spared demolition. (In 1919 the King Building was renamed the Irving Moore Memorial Building; it stood until 1966.) Construction began September 9, 1909. Just as they did with Burnham’s St. Louis County Courthouse, Chicago contractors Lanquist and Illsley would build the Alworth, with J. E. Ericcson overseeing its construction.

The Alworth Building, photographed in 1930by Hugh McKenzie. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Construction of the building took just nine months, and the building did not go up without some problems. Falling bricks and timbers during construction broke windows in adjacent buildings and struck pedestrians. In five days in November alone there were reports of timbers falling, worker injuries, faulty scaffolding, and even the death of  25-year old Tony Viola (described as “an Italian”), who attempted to repel down the building using a cable in late December; a poor grip on the frozen cable led to his death; he dropped fourteen stories and was, according to the News Tribune, “dashed into an almost unrecognizable mass.” More bricks began falling off in January, 1910, shortly after the interior heat was first turned on. The heat dried out some brick faster than others, causing them to shift and, sometimes, fall. Later that month the building was inspected and declared safe.

Earlier that month, on January 16, Alworth and Washburn made headlines by hoisting an American flag atop the building for the first time—it was, of course, the tallest waving flag in Duluth, Minnesota, and the “Northwest.” About the same time predictions were made: with Duluth’s population closing in on the 100,000 mark—and a giant steel mill under construction in West Duluth—the Zenith City’s downtown business district would soon be crowded with skyscrapers, many of them towering above the Alworth.

The building was ready for occupancy by May 1, 1910, as promised. The Alworth is built of a steel skeleton reinforced with concrete and faced with cream-colored pressed brick adorned with terra cotta trim. The Duluth News Tribune described it as “a cosmopolitan office building, one that dwarfs the tower of Babel to a cottage in comparison” and “an epoch in the architectural history of Duluth.” The building features terra cotta floral medallions on the upper floors and three oval windows, each capped with massive terra cotta lions’ heads and floral motifs on the top floor.  The Alworth—which cost nearly $500,000 (about $12.5 million today)—stands 240 feet above Michigan Street.

The Alworth Building, in a detail of a photographed taken some time in the 1960s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Atop the building Alworth built a 16 x 50-foot observation deck the News Tribune said would “command a view of the lake for 30 miles on a clear day.” He set up office on the Michigan Street side of the 16th floor—he would have the building’s best view indoors as well. Captain August Wolvin—who already had his own building at 227 West First Street (now the Missabe Building)—rented space for his Wolvin Steamship operations on an upper floor of the Alworth as well.  With this new vantage point his employees could keep track of the company’s ships coming to and going from the Port of Duluth.

Inside, the entire first floor was occupied by Northern National Bank. Its counters were faced with white marble and capped with green marble. The woodwork and furniture were all made of mahogany, the floors of marble tile, and the ceiling finished in ornamental plaster. The bank also featured a large skylight. Beyond the the first floor, the building is essentially made of two wings. The gap between them provides more windows to light offices and allowed light to come in the skylight. The second through fifteenth floors originally contained 275 offices, all lined with marble wainscoting and trimmed in mahogany; the floors where covered with marble tiles as well.

Other initial tenants included a number of real estate companies, insurance companies, and brokerage firms such as Clarke-Wertin Insurance Co., McLoed & Hamilton Real Estate, C. H. Graves & Company (insurance, real estate, loans), and A. H. Burg and Co. Real Estate. The Oneida Realty Company—created by Alworth in 1908 and technically the building’s owner—also set up shop in the Alworth. A few physicians took up residency as well, including Dr. McAuliffe, Dr. J. C. Anderson, and others.

Duluth was apparently fond of its tall structure. During its first ten year it was referenced in the papers frequently, sometimes in corny jokes (“How much is Alworth?”) and other times simply to fill space. A June 1913 article, for example, described the building’s maintenance crew and made some amazing calculations about its elevator operators: they “travelled” 170 miles each day, 1,120 miles a week, and 52,000 miles a year. “Every year the operator’s duties oblige them to travel as far as a trip twice around the world. Each month they ride over a journey equal in mileage to a sea voyage between Seattle and Japan. Each week they tour, through the Alworth Building, from new York to Cuba in the number of miles covered.”

The Alworth Building in a detail of a photographed taken some time in the 1970s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

As the region’s tallest building, it also attracted flies—human flies, that is. The first, W. H. Gardiner, scaled the face of the Alworth on August 12, 1916, with 5,000 people watching; he had scaled the Lonsdale the day before. In May 1921, Jack Williams—billed as “the original human fly”—scaled the building twice on May 9 and 10 as part of a fundraising effort for the American Legion. (William’s own publicity declared that “More than 500 men acting under his name have been killed in attempting to copy his feat.”)

As most office buildings do, the Alworth has led a quiet life. Tenants have come and gone, and have reflected the business of the city: the Alworth has been home to architects, attorneys, mining companies, railroad companies, steamship companies, and the previously mentioned real estate and insurance companies. The building had a minor facelift in 1947, when the first- and second-floor façades were faced with unpolished gray-and-pink granite panels that reached over to the Lonsdale Building to the east and a four-story addition to the west, creating one two-story façade for both buildings and the new wing.

The Alworths themselves have come and gone as well. Marshall H. Alworth’s sons Marshall W. Alworth and Royal D. Alworth—the only two of Marshall H. and Nellie’s seven children to survive to adulthood—took over their father’s businesses. Marshall W. oversaw the mining properties and Royal D. took on the real estate holdings. The elder Alworth passed away in 1931 at 84 years old. Nellie died in 1947. Two years later Marshal W. Alworth started the Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Scholarship program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The Alworth photographed in 2014. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Northern National Bank became the Northern City National Bank some time before 1957, the year the giant letters “N” and “C” were first placed atop the Alworth—and illuminated at night. A 1980 merger changed the bank’s name to First Bank Duluth. In 1988 First Bank built itself a new building at 130 West Superior Street and, naturally, moved out of the Alworth. First Bank has since become U.S. Bank.

Today the Alworth building still includes the offices of Alworth’s Oneida Realty. It is also home to the Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Fund, St. Louis County Title Company, Stewart Title, several law firms (including large firms such as Falsani, Balmer, Peterson, Quinn, & Beyer and Petersen, Sage, Graves, Layman & Moe), The Minnesota Board of Public Defense, Eagle Accounting, and Wheeler  Associates. The first floor is still occupied by a bank, Republic Bank, which moved in in the 1980s. The skylight that once helped illuminate the bank when it opened in 1910 has been covered.

Despite those early reports of Duluth inevitably become home to dozens of skyscrapers, no on has constructed a building in Duluth that surpasses the Alworth in height. The original plans for the new Maurice’s corporate headquarters, currently under construction along the entire upper half of the west 400 block of Superior Street, called for a 15-story glass tower, but plans have since been altered to 11 stories. Over 105 years later, the Alworth remains Duluth’s tallest structure—and it doesn’t look like it will be surpassed any time soon.


This Month's Grand Old Building

8 Responses to The Alworth Building: “Look Up—You Can’t Miss It”

  1. Thanks for this article – much appreciated. The Alworth is one of my most favorite buildings – it’s a classic Burnham design. The hideous Northern City sign disfigured this building, while oddly the 1st sign atop the nearby First American National Bank (now Wells Fargo) building added a touch of urbanity and sophistication to the Duluth skyline.

  2. My father’s office was on the second floor corner overlooking Superior Street. It was a great place to watch the Christmas City of the North parade.

  3. Thanks for the added detail, Brian. I’ll have to recheck my source on the polished/unpolished issue.

  4. Grant, the newspaper listed all of the tenants, and Washburn, Bailey & Mitchell was not among them. I’ll try to remember to look it up the next time I visit the library.

  5. I believe the NC letters were installed early 60’s, a helicopter was used to lift sign to top. there must a story about the trouble they had with helicopter and wind. Todd Johnson

  6. The mid-century street-level facade of the Alworth and Lonsdale buildings is mostly Morton Gneiss from a quarry in the Minnesota River Valley. (And it most definitely IS polished.)

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