Duluth Public Library (1902)

A postcard of the Duluth Public Library made between 1902 and 1915. (Image: Zenith City Press)

With additional funding in place, the Library Board cancelled its contract with Radcliffe and Willoughby and hired Rudolph. (Radcliffe and Willoughby subsequently sued the city, eventually accepting a $750 settlement, about $19,500 today). Beside being an architect, Rudolph was also a beloved teacher of drawing at Duluth Central High School, said to be “a great favorite of the pupils on account of his constant good humor and endless fund of anecdotes.” But despite his attitude the combined work of architect and teaching took too much time, and he retired from Central High while working on the library.

Work began on July 4, 1901, when ground was broken for construction by the firm of Pearson and Fawcett, whose bid of $72,000—almost $1.9 million today—had secured them the building contract. The cornerstone included a time capsule containing a copy of Central High’s 1901 Zenith yearbook, a photo of Carnegie, and—perhaps because of Carnegie’s Scottish ancestry—a list of Duluth’s members of the Clan Stewart. Construction lasted a year.

The result was a two-story building in the Neo-Classical style faced entirely of brownstone quarried at Flag River, Wisconsin. Its Second Street façade includes a grand entrance supported by Ionic columns, and the pediment above the entry is inscribed simply “Duluth Public Library.” Its most striking feature is the low circular dome that caps the building. It contains an oculus—essentially a window at its center—which brings in light from above.

Because of its setting on Duluth’s Hillside, the main entrance actually opens to the building’s basement, which contains the boiler room, restrooms, and other utilitarian facilities. To access to the first floor patrons ascend a white marble staircase with bronze filligre handrails. When the library opened, the octagonal space directly under the dome—measuring 32 feet across—was the location of the circulation desk and card catalog. On the outside rim of the rotunda ionic columns—made of concrete but finished to resemble green marble—framed entries to a Reference, Reading Room, Children’s Reading Room, Newspaper Room, Fiction Room, Librarian’s office, and the stacks. The only room on the second floor was originally the board room.

The reading room was in the southwest corner of the building. This space contains a large carved sandstone fireplace. The Minnehaha Window was installed along its eastern wall—but not without some trouble. As we’ve mentioned before here on Zenith City, when it came time to move the window to the new library in 1902, workers removed it and set it on a table before leaving for lunch. When they returned the window was missing. It was taken by real estate magnate E. P. Alexander, the new owner the Temple Opera Block—the Masons were building a new facility at 4 West Second Street. Alexander claimed, “It is a fixture of the building and belongs to me.”  But after some pressure by city attorney Oscar Mitchell, Alexander called Lydia Poirer, the head librarian, and told her “It’s mine, but I will donate it to the library.”

Another window—the “Greysolon Window,” also designed by Weston—was then commissioned by the Greysolon Duluth Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in honor of Duluth’s namesake. When finished, it was hung alongside the Minnehaha.

On April 20, 1902, the Duluth News Tribune offered this description of other interior appointments: “The dome was finished in an ornamental plastering…green pillars of cement which make up a striking imitation of marble, show up finely against the white. The marble and tile work is also very tasteful. The entrance has marble wainscoting and all the flooring is tile, with the exception of the stack rooms, where glass is used.” That’s right, the stack rooms have (or, mostly, had) glass block floors. The flooring “tile” is actually a Terrazzo finish.

The building was dedicated on April 19, 1902, in a simple ceremony in which Mayor Hugo accepted the building from Pearson & Fawcett on behalf of Duluth’s citizens. Many Duluthians were on hand for the ceremony, which included music from Flaaten’s orchestra and songs sung by Anna Farrell. Within four years the library would boast a collection of over 45,000 volumes.

The facility was not without its problems. As early as 1904 newspapers reported that the roof leaked “like a sieve.” By 1908, the roof had to be completely rebuilt at a cost of over $10,000, or $250,000 today. Annual reports spoke of space issues until 1921, when it was declared that the city had already outgrown its library. Duluth had already added several branch libraries throughout the city: West Duluth in 1912, Lincoln in the West End in 1917, Morgan Park also in 1917. In 1926 it would open a branch in Lester Park, and another in Woodland in 1928. The Library was also operating a book mobile.

But those branches and services weren’t enough, and between the construction of the Lester Park and Woodland facilities an addition was made to the 1902 library. Rooms were added to the rear of the building, providing more room for stack and other facilities—a provision Rudolph had included in his original plans. The addition cost $45,000, nearly $600,000 today.

The addition, branches, and library services and programs—seem to have sufficed for a few decades at least. But by 1966 an extensive study by Frederick Wazeman of the University of Iowa Library School showed tht the library was “outmoded, outdated, inefficient and uneconomical to operate.” The times had changed since Rudolph designed a building to hold books and periodicals, and the building was not prepared for technological advances such as microfilm readers, not to mention the computers we now take for granted. Nor would it meet today’s regulations for handicap accessibility

By 1968 replacing the building had become a priority. During this same period the city had purchased a great deal of the old Bowery section of downtown as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. A site committee chose the entire lower half of the 500 block of West Superior Street for Duluth’s new library. It took eight more years to break ground on the project.

The new library was dedicated June 28, 1980—before any books had even been placed on its shelves. It didn’t open to the public until the following year. When it did open, something else was missing: the Minnehaha and Greysolon windows. The new “ore boat” library didn’t have a place to hang them. They were eventually installed in an addition to the Duluth Union Depot, today’s St. Louis County Arts & Cultural Center.

After it closed, the city sold the 1902 library to a private developer after a public auction stripped the building of most of its furnishings, including the stacks themselves. A company called Historic Development Property Partners purchased the building converted it into 25 office suites.  In 1989 the building was purchased by Christ’s Household of Faith, who in 2002 sold it to Chad and Aubrey Scott for $450,000. The Scotts put considerable time, effort, and financing into the structure. According to the Duluth News Tribune, those renovations included “a new roof, new windows, plaster repair, tuckpointing, a new boiler system and restoration of the central dome.” In 2010 the Scotts put the property up for sale for $862,000.

The building sold in July of 2013 for $600,000. New owners Julie Wicker, Mike Clevette and Tammi Henderson of Accend Properties now own the building, and further renovations are going on both inside and outside the building: once again there is a leak to be dealt with in the domed roof.

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