St. Louis County Courthouse (1909)

This postcard was made from Daniel Burnham’s final plan for the Duluth Civic Center in 1909, although the final building wouldn’t be constructed until 1929. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Big Plans, Big Changes, and a Big Name

All too soon problems arose. Many argued that if a new county jail was built behind the courthouse, the bastille would be too close to Jackson School—a bad influence on both children and property values. Others complained the site was too small, offering no landscape advantages. Still others didn’t like the idea that a grand building like the courthouse would face the avenue. The Commercial Club actually suggested locating it in the West End.

Still, the commission moved forward with acquisitions and hired local architect John J. Wangenstein to submit plans for the new building. Wangenstein was at the height of his profession, and already had an impressive list of accomplishments, including the 1903 Duluth Boat Club and the 1904 Masonic Temple. In April 1907 he delivered preliminary plans for a four-story building built of granite and sandstone and crowned with a 60-foot dome. Its cost was estimated at $700,000.

Two months later prominent Duluth attorney J. H. Whitney suggested a bold idea for the courthouse site: Purchase all four corner lots at the intersection of Fourth Avenue West and Second Street and build the courthouse in the middle of that intersection, rerouting Second Street using alleys. That, he argued, would make for a grand, dramatic monument and “create a favorable impression upon strangers who visit Duluth.” The idea was well received, but before it could be implemented, the biggest name in American architecture came to Duluth—and changed everything.

Chicago architect Daniel Burnham had come to prominence as the architect of the 1893 Columbian Expedition in Chicago, where he created the “White City” to house exhibitions, inadvertently popularizing neoclassical architecture. He would later create such architectural masterpieces as New York City’s iconic Flatiron Building and was the leader of the “City Beautiful” movement, adapted by Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., which “promoted beauty not only for its own sake, but also to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.”

Burnham’s firm was asked to supervise the courthouse’s construction using Wangenstein’s plans, but after reviewing the property the Chicago architect came up with a plan of his own. By mid July Burnham had replaced Wangenstein as the building’s architect; Wangenstein’s role was reduced to that of building supervisor.

Burnham’s plans were first seen in Duluth October 8, 1907. They called for grouping the courthouse with new city and federal buildings and placing them on a new site along Fifth Avenue West between First and Second Streets. The courthouse would span the avenue, taking up a half block on either side of it. The Federal Building would eventually rise across from its present location, and the old Federal Building would be used as City Hall until a larger facility was needed.

All of the new buildings, Burnham declared, would be designed in the classical style, “with the best tradition of ancient Greece and Rome.” The courthouse building would be designed on “an Ionic order of monumental proportion…two stories in height” that would leave an impression of “simplicity and dignity without any attempt to introduce domes, turrets, or other feature not logically called for by the necessities of the building.” It would cost about $1 million dollars.

Most of Duluth loved the idea. The News Tribune called the plan “a magnificent gift,” and that not grouping city, county, and federal buildings together would be “the height of folly.” It was better to spend $1 million on this plan than $700,000 on a building that would be inadequate in 20 years. Distractors complained that it “sacrificed” four blocks in the business district for public use; they were quietly ignored.

On October 17 the plan was accepted, but with a change. The Burnham plan had the buildings closely grouped together, allowing for little space between buildings. The adopted plan called for the three buildings to sit on one site between Fourth and Sixth Avenue West between First and Second Streets, with the Courthouse actually on Second Street, which would be rerouted around the back of the building. That way the buildings could be moved away from one another, allowing much more space for landscaping. The courthouse would have a smaller footprint, but it would now be five stories high.

By April 1908 the county purchased properties on the site—including those of W. W. Spalding, A. M. Miller, and Captain Alexander McDougall—and existing buildings were either moved or demolished. Construction bids came in in May. The good news: all were less than the $1 million estimate. The bad news, at least for Duluth contractors, was that Chicago’s Lanquist & Illsley won the contract.

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