Alworth Building

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

306 W. Superior Street | Architect: Daniel H. Burnham | Built: 1910 | Extant

“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.

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 12, 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.

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.

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.

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