Besides acting as headquarters for Duluth’s Minnesota National Guard, the Duluth Armory also hosted hundreds of cultural events and national acts throughout its lifetime. It became the home of automobile shows as early as 1916, 1925’s “Exposition of Progress and Iron Ore Golden Jubliee,” and the 27th Annual Show of the American Peony Society in 1930. It would later host Duluth’s Home and Builder’s Show, the annual Home-Boat Show, the Duluth and Arrowhead Outdoor Life Exposition, and other business-related events.
Armory performers—from singers, musicians, and dancers to comedians and public speakers—make up an impressive list. Speakers included past and future presidents William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman as well as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” entertained Duluth with various oddities, and “Western” entertainer Gene Autry, Will Rogers, Roy Rogers —along with Dale Evans and “Trigger”—charmed audiences. Bob Hope did his stand-up routine for the Zenith City at the Armory, and Rudolph Valentino and his wife performed a dance.
Vocalists alone included Enrico Caruso and dozens of other national and international stars: Olive Frenstad, Jan Rubini, Feodor Chaliapin, Mary Garden, Amelita Galli-Curci, Sigrid Onegin, Maggie Teyle, Miura Tamiki, Rosa Raisa, Frances Alda, Marion Talley, Titta Ruffo, Louisa Tetrazinni, Reinald Werreuruth, Rosa Ponselle, Frieda Hempel, and many more, including Baroness Maria von Trapp of Sound of Music fame. Classical and jazz musicians included John Phillips Sousa and his band, the New York Philharmonic, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinist Fritz Kreisler, the Russian Symphony Orchestra, Irish tenor John McCormick, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace. Country music was represented by George Jones, Grandpa Jones, Mother Maybelle, the Carter Family, and June Carter and Johnny Cash. Cash also played the Armory with his pals Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
During its later years, Sonny & Cher, the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Diana Ross and the Supremes graced the Armory’s stage. And of course no biography of Duluth’s National Guard Armory is complete without mention of Bob Dylan’s claims to have sat in the Armory’s front row during the “Winter Dance Party” of January 1959, when he was still known as Bobby Zimmerman. In his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech, Dylan mentioned the concert and said that, “when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him…and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was—I don’t know how or why—but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.” As most know, Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash just three days after their Duluth appearance.
The 1915 Duluth National Guard Armory also hosted the largest funeral ever held in Duluth, that of Albert Woolsen, the last surviving Union soldier from the Civil War, who died in 1956 at age 109. Woolsen, a drummer boy who never saw action but witnessed Sherman’s march to the sea, lied about his age to enlist. His funeral was covered by Life magazine. According to the Duluth News Tribune, “Thousands mourned his passing, and his funeral was attended by high government and military officials. More than 1,500 attended last rites in the Duluth Armory, thousands lined the route of the four-mile procession to Park Hill Cemetery, and 2,000 bowed their heads at the sound of the bugle’s final “Taps.’” (Read more about Woolsen here and here.)
The building itself changed little over the years outside of a 154′-8″ long and 45′ wide addition in 1941 that wraps around the Drill Hall’s northwest corner, extending over 11 feet beyond the latter’s rear wall. Following World War II the Minnesota Naval Militia was disbanded. When the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center was built in the 1960s, the Armory began to fall out of favor as a performance space. In 1977 the National Guard announced plans for a new armory in Duluth.
The city purchased the 1914 building in 1978 for $160,000 and used it for a variety of purposes, including storing fleet vehicles. A report showed that “city officials actually poured raw materials onto the [Drill Hall’s} open floor.” The historic wooden floor had to be removed. In 2000, citing severe structural problems, the city said it would demolish the building by September 1, 2001. According to its national register nomination form, that’s when preservationists stepped in: “In response, local preservationists rallied to save the building, but they faced major challenges. The building had fallen into disrepair after years of vacancy, and its proximity to the lake and visible location along a busy thoroughfare made the site a prime location for new development. Inclusion on Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s ‘Ten Most Endangered Buildings’ list in 2001, however, helped the preservationists gain momentum. On May 24, 2004, the property was purchased by the Armory Arts and Music Center.”
The AAMC, which intends to turn at least part of the Armory into performance space and an arts center, paid just $1 for the building and has since struggled to raise funds to preserve and adapt the building for modern reuse. Efforts were hampered by a lack of focus as to what to do with the building and more structural issues: falling bricks and, as previously mentioned, Chester Creek breaking through its culvert during the 2012 flood. A recent donation of $1 million has made its future more promising.