Medical Arts Building

The Medical Arts Building illuminated for its grand opening event in May 1933. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

324 West Superior Street | Architect: Ernest R. Erickson | Built: 1933 | Extant

When Marshal H. Alworth built the Alworth Building in 1910, newspapers raved about its modern design and the fact that it had been constructed in a very short time—nine months from groundbreaking to grand opening. In 1933, when Alworth’s son Royal D. Alworth built Duluth’s Medical Arts building just two lots east of the Alworth, the press also noted the building’s look and the speed with which it went up, but Royal’s highly respected father and his building were not even mentioned in the papers. Marshall H. Alworth had died three year earlier, and Royal no longer sat in his shadow. He not only built Duluth’s most significant piece of Art Deco architecture, but he did it in the middle of the Great Depression.

Royal D. Alworth was born in Duluth in 1889 and followed in Marshall’s footsteps, becoming involved in his father’s mining and real estate ventures, promoting and operating manufacturing and industrial properties. He would eventually take his father’s place as president of the Oneida Realty Co., which operated Duluth’s Alworth, Medical Arts, the WEBC, and the Northland buildings. He served as president or director of a number of firms, including Consolidated Abstract Co., Alworth Land and Improvement Co., Northern Minnesota National Bank, Duluth Terminal and Cold Storage Co., the British American Timber Co., and Chicago’s McGraw Electric Co. He also acted as president of the Kitchi Gammi Club and Chairman of Duluth Red Cross, and sat on the Duluth Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

His Medical Arts Building would follow two current trends sweeping the nation: Art Deco architecture and buildings designed specifically to serve physicians, dentists, and their patients. At first he considered converting the 1894 St. Louis Hotel into an office building, but after an exhaustive study that found that Duluth had a large physician-to-patient ratio—about 40 percent greater than the national average—he decided a new building was in order, one with facilities for medical practitioners. The Duluth Herald reported that “Only doctors affiliated with and approved by the medical and dental societies were to be considered.” The building, its builder promised, would be large enough to hold “80 percent of the whole medical profession in Duluth.” Alworth announced his plans on March 1, 1932, and on May 19 demolition began. It took two months to tear down the St. Louis, at the time the largest building ever purposely demolished in Duluth.

Alworth hired Duluth native Ernest R. Erickson to design his building. The architect began his career as an engineer and was thought to be the only man at the head of the lakes to register as both an architect and an engineer. His career began in Wisconsin, but following service in World War I he was hired to oversee construction of the Minnesota Steel Plant’s steel-and-wire facility in Duluth. After that he took an office in the Alworth Building and hung out his architect’s shingle. He would later design the Miller Memorial Hospital.

Erickson looked to current building trends for inspiration. The Art Deco movement was sweeping the nation. It favored vertical lines and little adornment, unlike the Richardsonian Romanesque buildings that went up during the boom years between 1887 and 1900. Like the St. Louis Hotel that the new building would replace, Romanesque buildings were broad, heavy buildings made of brick and brownstone favoring horizontal lines. The Alworth Building rests somewhere in between, a tall building emphasizing vertical elements, yet still highly adorned with terra-cotta elements.

Erickson’s design separates the building into three distinct sections along Superior Street, two nine-story outer bays framing a central bay 12 stories high (with the Michigan Street level, the building is technically 13 stories high). The first floor along Superior Street rests on a black granite base, and its storefront windows were originally encased in bronze. Flat limestone panels made of processed cast vibrated stone face the entire building. The windows and bronze spandrels create dark vertical lines that contrast with the lighter limestone piers. The building’s only exterior adornments are two reliefs depicting the head of Native Americans at the top of the right and left piers of the Superior Street façade. The Duluth Herald explained that the reliefs “are symbolic of the Indian medicine man of the Arrowhead region.”

Workers broke ground September 1, 1932. During the course of construction some 600 men were employed, following a three-shift-a-day schedule. This is particularly remarkable when you considered that 1932 was the economic low point of the Great Depression. By Christmas it was completely enclosed. On March 28, less than seven months after work began, the Chamber of Commerce began moving into its new offices in the Medical Arts Building. Physicians and dentists were relocating on the 30th and 31st. The Medical Arts Building was declared officially complete May 1; it had cost Oneida Realty $1 million to build, about $18 million today.

Much of the money was spent on its interior. With very little public space to decorate (only 10 percent of the entire building is unoccupied space) the first-floor lobby became the building’s focal point. Its walls are faced floor-to-ceiling in dark tan Loredo Chiaro marble from Italy. The room’s lighting is concealed behind tilted marble tiles on the upper tiers. All of the metalwork in the lobby—the elevator doors, door trim, mailbox, etc.—is made of polished bronze. Terrazzo floors reflect the gleam of a gold-leaf ceiling.

By the time of its grand opening on May 26, the building was 90 percent occupied. Fifty-three physicians moved into the building, including prominent Duluth doctors William Bagley and his daughter Elisabeth, who donated the land that is now Bagley Nature Center on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Thirty-three dentists also took up occupancy at the Medical Arts.

Businesses located off that opulent first-floor lobby included Home Collins & Co. Investments, C. G. Firoved’s barber shop, the La Mode hosiery shop, the Medical Arts Pharmacy, and the Medical Arts Rental Library, through which the building’s tenants could share their bibliographic resources. The anchor tenant was Miller’s Café, Duluth’s oldest restaurant.

In 1887 J. W. Miller of Malone, New York, came to Duluth and recognized a need. While every other young man in town was speculating over real estate, lumber mills, and iron mining, there were few decent places to eat. So Miller opened the Ideal Café, which the Duluth Herald described as “the city’s first real downtown restaurant.” He later changed the name to Miller’s Cafeteria when he moved to the Torrey Building in 1894. With chef Chris Jensen by his side, Miller had great success in Duluth and later opened three more cafés in the Zenith City as well as others in Hibbing, Virginia, Rochester, and Minneapolis.

The Miller’s Café in the Medical Arts Building would have only the second counter in the U.S. constructed with Enduro Stainless Steel; the first was the Miller’s Café in Minneapolis, operated by one of J. W.’s sons (another son, Arthur, operated the Duluth restaurant). The Duluth Herald described the counter as “scientifically refrigerated, illuminated, and steam heated.” The café also featured a “beautiful” soda fountain and sat 300 diners, mostly in padded booths for two or four people. A balcony led to three private dining rooms. By the time Miller’s Cafeteria opened in the Medical Arts Building, Arthur was claiming the Millers had served over 20 million meals in Duluth. (He would have been a great marketing executive for McDonalds.)

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