201–207 East 1st Street | Architect: Edwin Radcliffe and Charles Willoughby | Built: 1896 | Extant
Like nearly all of the municipal buildings constructed in Duluth between 1889 and 1900, Duluth’s first national guard armory was meant to be a statement that reflected the values of its community. In comparison to most of those facilities—highly ornate Romanesque affairs faced with Lake Superior brownstone—the armory was a rather modest building, although it did share one important trait with the 1889 City Hall, the 1889 St. Louis County Jail, the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters, and the 1892 Federal Customs House and Post Office: within ten years of its construction, it would be considered inadequate, and it would take considerable time and effort to replace it.
In June of 1884, a group of Duluthians came together to form the Zenith City’s first company of soldiers for the state’s National Guard. According to historian D. E. Woodbridge, “a number of the younger citizens, devoted to the preservation, protection and defense of their country and state, as well as the manly bearing they would derive from strictly military discipline.” Woodbridge would know: he was one of those younger citizens. His group became known as Company E of Minnesota’s Second Regiment, under the command of Col. Joseph Bobleter. They set up quarters in the Hunter Block, drilled, and practiced handling their Enfield rifles.
In 1889, the regiment was first called out to quell a riot among 2,000 laborers working on the water and light systems in West Duluth. The next year the company moved into a large roller skating rink at First Street and Third Avenue East and put down a riot of lumber mill workers in Cloquet. In 1892 Company E was sent to Tower to suppress rioting miners; they took 31 prisoners.
That same year the Minnesota National Guard reorganized, and Company E of the Second Regiment became Company A of the Third Regiment, and Companies G and H were formed in West Duluth. After the regiment’s Company C was formed in 1894, Duluth became serious about building a proper Armory for the new group and Company A to share that could also serve as a performance space and public marketplace.
The idea was first put forward in 1890 but didn’t gain much traction, but after Company C was formed and West Duluth built a new armory for companies G and H, the boys from Company A—fresh from quelling rioting miners in Virginia—and their new compatriots began pushing the issue on the city council, reminding it that a site had already been secured at the northeast corner of Second Avenue East and First Street at a cost of $25,000 and that the city was also paying $900 a year to rent “quarters not proper for military drill.”
It took until December 17, 1895, for the city to accept a plan for an armory. At the same meeting they hired the architectural firm of Radcliffe and Willoughby to design the structure. The following February the building contract went to C. J. Frederickson for $16,400, but in the end the building would cost about $30,000 (over $825,000 today).
The three-and-a-half story building’s primary façade, according to historian Michael Koop, was “fronted onto First Street and was divided into four large glass storefronts which continued onto the secondary western façade by wrapping the corner, which was set on a diagonal to accommodate a main entry.” Above the third floor’s windows the raised letters “3rd REG ARMORY” are set in a semicircular pattern, and a crenelated, stepped parapet contains in the center the raised numbers “1896.”
While the building was under construction, Mayor Henry Truelson objected to the use of common brick on the façade and was concerned that wooden posts were being used to support the structure. He personally showed his concerns to the architects and engineers, and red-faced brick was acquired and the wooden piers were replaced by new posts made of iron. Despite the brick and parapet, the Duluth News Tribune said the new armory was “without any extraneous adornment and is not much less homely than the proverbial red barn, but it was built for use, not ornament, and it is entirely suitable for the purposes for which it is designed.” Hardly high praise for the architects.
Inside, the main floor occupied a space of 80 x 107 feet, surrounded by a gallery for spectators—all told the space included about 12,000 square feet and could hold 5,000 spectators. It would be used for both the public market and entertainment, such as musical performances and lectures. The main floor was reserved for market space. The second floor was mostly open space and the elevated gallery. The third contained the drill hall as well as rooms for both Companies A and C, storage for their rifles and field camp gear, and personal lockers for each guardsman. There were also two 150-foot long rifle ranges.
The first activity to take place in the Armory—before it was even officially opened or dedicated—was a political lecture by T. V. Powderly, president of the Knights of Labor, who refuted assertions by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan on October 17. On the 22nd, W. E. Brown and Robert Lincoln—son of the 16th president—also spoke at the armory in opposition to Bryan. Both Republicans supported William McKinley. The event tested the building’s capacity for the first time and indeed, according to the News Tribune, 5,000 people attended, with 2,000 filling the gallery meant to hold just 1,500.