Originally Published May 2014
Earlier this month, Mark Frederickson, co-owner of Shel/Don Reproduction at 124 East Superior Street, responded to an editorial in the Duluth News Tribune by Zenith City publisher Tony Dierckins, writing in part, “I am curious as to why a noted historian refers to our building as the Service Motor Company when its original and most notable use was as the St. Louis County Courthouse.”
Dierckins and I had heard the claim before, but we had found nothing to verify it and its “official’ history, written as part of the nomination for Duluth’s Downtown Historic District, made no mention of it. But when Mr. Fredrickson explained that the upper floor of his building held courtrooms and a passage to the Police Station next door, we were intrigued. So this month we ask a question that has bothered some historians—and at least one building owner—for years: Was the building ever used as a courthouse?
Known on the National Register of Historic Places as the Service Motor Company Building, the structure at 124 East Superior was built in 1909 by builders McLoed & Smith for owner Donald B. McDonald. The Duluth pioneer was involved in many businesses in the Zenith City and on the Iron Range, and at one time served as president of Northern Cold Storage, Zenith Dredge, the American Exchange Bank of Virginia, and Duluth’s Northern National Bank. His Cole-McDonald Exploration Company was once the largest diamond drill company in the world.
For his Superior Street building McDonald chose the architectural firm of German & Lignell in one of the last projects the two would work on together before dissolving their partnership. A notice in the September 20, 1908, News Tribune said that the soon-to-constructed building would have “a highly ornamental front.” Indeed it did, and much of it survives today. The two-story structure is dressed with terra cotta and includes Luxfer green prism glass—made famous by renown architect Frank Lloyd Wright—in the transom windows. The building’s adornments include green terra cotta trim with numerals spelling out “1909,” the date of the building’s construction. Classical detailing includes oak leaf garlands and rosette blocks in window surrounds.
The street-level retail space was first the home of Dunlop & Moore, a builders’ and painters’ supply store, which relocated in 1914. It is unclear who used the space from 1914 to 1915, but by 1916 it was home to the Service Motor Company. SMC was a Ford dealership that offered 24-service. The building’s main floor was reinforced with bolstered joists to carry the significant weight of the automobiles. SMC became part of Duluth’s “Automobile Row,” a stretch of Superior Street from roughly Second Avenue East to Eighth Avenue East dominated by car dealerships, service stations, and auto parts stores.
McDonald originally intended for the building’s second floor to be used as office space. Built in 1909, it could not have been used as a county courthouse. The 1889 County Courthouse was in use until that very year when it was closed and the county courts moved to our current courthouse in Duluth’s Civic Center. So why did Frederickson and his business partner, Dean Baltes, find courtrooms there?
Because in 1909, city hall was too small. In fact, when it first opened in 1889 it was already cramped. The municipal court was in the basement, on the Michigan Street level, along with the police department. Municipal court was sometime referred to as “police court.” It dealt mostly with minor infractions, such as drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and profanity (at one point in Duluth’s history anyone—even children—could be locked up for days if found guilty of using foul language).
The Zenith City had several city jail facilities in 1889, including Duluth’s first jail at First Avenue East and Michigan Street and a lock-up on Rice’s Point, both described as rundown and “vermin infested.” This was due in part to Duluth’s geographic shape: it’s 27 miles from Lakeside to Fond du Lac, and in those days of horse carriages and limited streetcar lines, it was easier to have facilities throughout town (West Duluth had its own municipal building with its own municipal court and police station.) Before the 1890 police station and jail was built, prisoners held east of Rice’s Point were brought from these jails to city hall and forced to wait in a make-shift holding cell in the building’s sub-basement (now home to the Rathskeller at Tycoon’s Alehouse) until their case was heard.
In 1890 the new police department and jail next door took a great deal of pressure off the residents of city hall. But by 1908 quarters were cramped, and the Public Works Department needed room. As McDonald’s building was going up immediately west of the police department, the wheels started to turn two doors east at city hall. On September 29, 1908, the city passed an ordinance that “provides for the leasing of the new municipal court on the second floor of the building now being erected adjoining the police station.”
And so the municipal court moved into the second floor of McDonald’s building soon after it opened, and Public Works indeed took over the old municipal court facilities in City Hall. But it is evident it wasn’t easy to convert the office space for courtrooms. The second floor of McDonald’s building was several feet lower than the police station and jail’s second floor, which held the prisoners. So when workers knocked open a wall to create a passage between the jail and the municipal court, they also had to build a set of stairs and a ramp in the McDonald building. Workers also built a concrete vault to protect the court’s records.
The municipal court operated out of McDonald’s building until 1928, when it and the rest of the city’s government relocated in the brand new City Hall in the Civic Center. The Service Motor Company had moved out the year before.
After that, the building saw a number of tenants come and go. From 1928 to 1929 it was another car dealer, this one specializing in selling Oakland and Pontiac automobiles. In 1931 the firm of Goldfarb and Myers operated the building as an indoor golf course. It was Siegel Hardware in 1934 and in 1936 the first floor became a car showroom once again, home to the Used Car Market until 1956.
In 1940 the second floor was rented by the Duluth Driver’s Union for their union hall, and it remained a union hall until 1960. The building was used as warehouse space from 1960 to 1989, when Shel/Don moved into the space.
Since Frederickson and Baltes purchased the business and the building, they have worked to renovate the second floor while retaining as much of the historic look of the buildings’ municipal court era as possible. Many of the court/union hall offices are intact, including the original oak-and-ribbed-glass doors. Light fixtures and carpeting were carefully selected to maintain a period look. Lighting was installed above skylights that no longer let in the sun because of a new rubber roof, creating the effect of working skylights. And the first floor ceiling beneath the vault—which had sagged under the intense weight of the concrete reinforced walls—was raised and supported with new beams.
Their work on the building continues, and we tip our hats to them as they maintain the building’s historic exterior and adapt part of the interior for reuse while at the same time keeping as much of it within its historic character as possible.
All this “new” information is a great example of how even history can be a moving target. It also makes us wonder if the building’s historic name should be changed from Service Motor Company to either the McDonald Block or the Duluth Municipal Court Building.
FOX-21 News reporter Dana Thayer reported on the Shel/Don building on April 29, 2013. See the video here.