St. Louis County Courthouse (1909)

The 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, depicted in a postcard made between 1915 and 1925. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Construction Begins

Basement  excavation began on the evening of June 29, when crews went to work “night and day” to get as much work done while the weather was warm. Work progressed with little incident until November 2, when a large derrick mast dropped onto a beam on which five laborers were standing. All were injured, two severely. Charles Nichols, a 41-year-old supervisor from Chicago, suffered internal injuries; he died two days later.

On September 8, 1908, Duluth’s Masons led the ceremony for what the News Tribune called Duluth’s “the first big step toward the ‘city beautiful,’” the laying of the courthouse’s cornerstone. Thousands gathered to witness the event, which began with a parade and included a speech by Duluth School Superintendent Robert Denfeld, a Mason himself, who said:

The laying of this stone marks a great epoch in the history of the city. In planning and beginning the execution of this great public building group Duluth has taken a forward step that is unparalleled. It is something that no other city has accomplished. Future generations will marvel at the courage which made possible such a lasting monument of the foresight, the taste and the wisdom of the people of this community.

Work continued well into the next year, and at the end of October county officials moved from the “wart house” to the new courthouse. The building’s final cost was $992,500, or nearly “one million honest dollars,” as one county official put it. That’s about $25 million today.

On October 30 nearly 1,000 people gathered to witness the building’s dedication. Congressman C. B. Miller, namesake of Miller Trunk Highway, accepted the building from the Commission. County Commissioner McGinnis, chair the Courthouse Commission, called himself the “Father of the new court house.” No one else did.

Two thousand more people, the News Tribune reported, wandered the building’s halls, inspecting every room. Judges William Cant, J. B. Middlecroft, and J.D. Ensign were on hand to greet visitors in their chambers, and “on every desk lay a box of cigars from which the visitor was welcome to help himself.” No one left unimpressed.

Faced with pink New-Hampshire granite, the building stands five stories tall on the “south” side and six stories on the “north,” or as the News-Tribune described it, “the side toward the hill.” Like most of Burnham’s public buildings, the courthouse’s architecture is Neo-Classical, and includes both Ionic and Doric Columns. The eight Ionic columns on the building’s front façade support a frieze inscribed with the words of Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot “The People’s Laws Define Usages, Ordain Rights and Duties, Secure Public Safety, Defend Liberty, Teach Reverence and Obedience, and Establish Justice.” It was a sentiment that echoed the values of the City Beautiful movement.

Inside, Italian marble tiles covered the floors marble wainscoting lined hallways and bathrooms; offices and courtrooms were trimmed in fumed quarter-sawn oak. The elevator doors were designed by former Duluth architect Francis Fitzpatrick. The building’s lighting and plumbing fixtures were of “the most modern design,” and its heating system—which included automatic temperature controls in every room—was described as “being as near perfect as such can be made.” The building generated its own electricity, generated by steam heat. A large ventilation system kept the air fresh.

The ground floor contained offices for Soldier’s Memorial Hall and the county superintendent of schools, who had to share the space with the boiler, turbines, and prisoners in a holding cell. The first floor held the probate court, register of deeds, county physician, county poor commissioners, and the sheriff. A “secret” elevator led from the sheriff’s office to the holding cell.

On the second floor worked the treasurer, auditor, county board, surveyor, assessor, county auditor, road engineer, and building commission. The treasurer’s office contained a vault with six-ton doors and three time locks. Above, on the third, were housed the sanatorium commission, county attorney, grand jury witness rooms, grand jury rooms, court room #5, office of special county council, juvenile court officials, probation officers, juvenile court room, judge of juvenile court, and the clerk of court.

The fourth floor held four courtrooms, all with witness and jury rooms and judges’ chambers. Court reporters and newspaper reporters had their own rooms as well. The St. Louis County Law Library took up the fifth floor—except for the center, which opened to the fourth floor below. Above, three stained-glass domes, supported by vaulted ceilings, acted as skylights and provided extra ventilation.

The county delayed a public open house for the building until the following June, after county employees had time to settle in and the building was outfitted with some public art. An estimated crowd of 5,500 walked through the courthouse on June 1, 1910, inspecting the buildings and some paintings. These included Arthur Kreiger’s copy of Rembrandt’s “The Syndics of the Draper Mills” (the “Dutch Boy Cigar” painting) and a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” borrowed from August Fitger. The building’s third floor contained perhaps the building’s most impressive piece, a nine-by-seven foot reproduction of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” by Charles L. A. Bergman.

The next day the employees of the new courthouse settled back into the work of the county. All seemed quite pleased with the investment—but completing the Civic Center was a long way off. A new jail was still 13 years away, and it would take until the end of the 1920s before the new city hall and federal building would rise, completing Daniel Burnham’s plan. He would only see the courthouse completed: the grand architect of Duluth’s Civic Center died in 1912.

Epilogue

Much has happened within the courthouse’s walls since 1920: notorious civil and criminal trials, including those surrounding the June 1920 lynchings in Duluth; feisty battles in the County Commissioners’ chambers; marriages and divorces; and as always the sometimes mundane paperwork of day-to-day county business. Over the years the building has seen many changes. The old coal furnace has long ago been replaced, along with the dynamos that once produced the building’s electricity. Offices and courtrooms have been updated throughout the years, keeping up with modern technologies and comforts, yet those who manage the building have also managed to keep most of the public spaces very close to their original condition. The floors and walls are still faced in marble, and much of the oak woodwork remains. The sheriff’s office—and holding cell—became obsolete in 1923 with the opening of the St. Louis County Jail. During the 1950s the opening above the 4th floor was “filled in,” creating more office space on the 5th floor, which became the County Attorney’s Office. As this is being written, the Law Library is preparing to move to the ground floor. With continued good management, this building could serve St. Louis County as long as one Duluth News Tribune headline predicted in 1909: “BUILDING SHOULD LAST CENTURIES.”

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