Temple Opera Block

McMillen & Stebbins final drawing of the Temple Opera Block and Temple Opera House. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Ray also had McMillen and Stebbins alter their original plans. The result was a seven story Richardsonion Romanesque building with Moorish details and capped with a onion-shaped copper copula. Its first three floors were faced in rough-hewn Arcadian brownstone, with a two-story “keyhole” entryway to the first-floor retail space that included polished St. Cloud granite columns and pilasters, carved brownstone capitols, and a balcony above. The façade of the top three stories was St. Louis brick with terra cotta and brownstone accents. Masonic and Celtic symbols, likely carved by George Thrana, adorned the building’s exterior. Inside marble tile covered the floor and marble wainscotting lined the walls; every door, window, and baseboard was trimmed out in golden oak. (Scroll to the end of the story to see photographs of the building’s exterior details.)

The masons used the fifth and sixth floors. The fifth included a banquet hall and ballroom; the sixth functioned as the Mason’s Blue Lodge. Its ceiling had four skylights and at least one photograph indicates that it may have opened into the dome as well. The dome featured four round windows meant to face east, west, north and south, but since Duluth’s streets are (mostly) platted at a 45-degree angle, they actually looked northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. Some of the Masonic facilities were located in the Temple Opera House, including their Scottish Rite lodge, whose ceiling was festooned with phosphorous stars.

The second, third and fourth floors were rented as offices, and most of the early tenants taught performing arts from dance to theatre, but especially music lessons, including piano and cello taught by Ernest Lachmund. J. D. and Robert Ray also moved their real estate office to the Temple Block’s third floor. Half of the second floor became the first home of the Duluth Public Library, which rose from the ashes of the Ladie’s Literary Society. The ground floor operated as a retail storefront and was occupied for many years by a pharmacy.

The building was dedicated on June 25, 1890, with a banquet and ball. Members of Duluth’s Palestine and Ionic Lodges were in attendance. According to the Duluth News Tribune, the masons and their wives donned “elaborate and elegant” costumes and after dinner, besides dancing, “the Episcopalians and a few others spent their time playing a few innocent games of cards, and some of the hard-shelled Baptists whiled several hours over the more innocent games of checkers and backgammon.” Charter member Van Brunt took charge of the arrangements, Patton headed up the welcoming committee, Grand Master Colonel C. H. Graves made a speech, and Reverend Barker gave the invocation.

Both the Temple Opera Block and the Temple Opera House received warm welcomes from Duluth, but the office block would serve Duluth’s Masons for less than fifteen years, the opera house just six. The opera house went up in flames October 12, 1895, after which the Masons had to use a makeshift space for its Scottish Rite. The library also continued to grow, squeezing out other tenants and eventually spreading to the third floor. (Read the history of the Temple Opera House here.)

By the turn of the century the city had begun planning a new library building. The library board approached Andrew Carnegie, who offered $25,000 to help build a new facility at 102 West Second Street. After the 1892 Chicago Exhibition, the tiffany stained-glass window—commissioned by the St. Louis County Women’s Auxiliary to represent Duluth and St. Louis County at the world’s fair—was returned to Duluth and installed in the library rooms on the Temple’s second floor. (The window was designed by Duluth’s own Anne Weston.) 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 magnet E. P. Alexander, the new owner the Temple Opera Block—the Masons were building a new facility at 4 West Second Street.

Alexander insisted the window was his and told Dr. Codding, director of the library board, that he planned to keep it. “It is a fixture of the building and belongs to me,” Alexander reportedly told Coddling. Legendary Duluth School Superintendent R. E. Denfeld was also on the board, and went to see city attorney Oscar Mitchell about bringing action against Alexander, but it never came to that. Some time in the night Alexander changed his perspective. He called Mrs. Poirer, the head librarian, and told her “It’s mine, but I will donate it to the library.”

Two years later the masons had moved into their new Second Street building. The Temple Opera House was never rebuilt. Amazingly, its ruins were allowed to remain standing for ten years and at one time were thought to be the site of a haunting. In 1905 architect John J. Wangenstein—who also designed the 1904 masonic temple—turned the ruins of the opera house ruins into a roller rink large enough to accommodate 700 skaters. In 1909 Guilford Hartley purchased the Temple Rink and the Temple Opera Block. He demolished the rink and on its site in 1910 built the Orpheum Theatre.

After that the Temple Opera Block took on a rather quiet life as an office space. Residents of the upper floors continued the tradition of music lessons. Alyda Flaaten taught piano there until the 1950s; in the early part of the century, her father’s band entertained at nearly all of Duluth’s public celebrations. The Superior Street storefront continued to be the home of pharmacies until the late 1950s, when it became the Dumas Beauty Salon, later the NorShor Beauty Shop. The building was vacant for some time in the 1970s and home to the Doll House and Zenith Insulation until 1983, when the first of several coffee shops tried the space. The Orpheum Cafe, named for the theatre up the avenue, operated for two years before closing. Vintage Italian Pizza moved in until 1991, when it became home of Lombardi’s restaurant. Next, came periodic vacancies and three more coffee houses: The Refinery, Urban Grounds,  the Orpheum Cafe (again), and Browser’s N’etc.

The retail space is currently home to Downtown Computer, which occupied the center storefront beginning in 1996 and in 2006 expanded to the corner storefront. The two upper stories still serve as offices, and most of the tenants today are in the fields of health and wellness.

So whatever became of those top three floors, and that Moorish dome? Rumors surround their disappearance. Many believe that Guilford Hartley removed them in 1910 because the architecture clashed with—and overwhelmed—his Orpheum Theatre. A permit for the removal of the top floors was filed in January, 1942. Hartley died in 1922, so removing the floors wasn’t his idea. In 1942 the building belonged to the Hartley Family trust, which included Hartley’s son, also named Guilford. It may well have been his action, but why?

Our best guess is that those top floors—designed primarily for the specific needs of Masons, weren’t attracting tenants. A 50-year-old copper dome would also be expensive to maintain or repair. So it may have been to make the building more efficient. Or those floors may have been damaged previously, perhaps in a fire, and removing the floors may have been a less-expensive alternative to repairing the damage. But the Hartley Trust also owned the Orpheum and Orpheum Garage to the east of the Temple Opera Block; they leased both buildings to the Minnesota Amusement Company in 1939. Minnesota Amusement converted the old theatre and parking garage into the NorShor Theatre, which was capped with a 60-foot white porcelain tower covered in lights. Perhaps the Temple Opera Block was partially destroyed to make the NorShor’s Tower a more powerful attractor.

Controversial building collector Dr. Eric Ringsred purchased the Orpheum, NorShor, and Temple Opera Block in the 1980s. Despite losing its top floors and Moorish dome back in 1942, the Temple Opera Block is in remarkably good shape, and the 2nd Ave. E. and Superior St. façades remain in their original 1889 glory. The building continues to vitally serve the community: its first floor still serves as a retail space—its builders’ original intent—and the second and third floors contain offices for a variety of professionals. The original oak woodwork still adorns the walls, windows, and doorways. In 2010 the city of Duluth purchased the building from Dr. Rinsgred as part of the Purchase of the NorShor/Orpheum facility.

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