Captain Torrey and Duluth’s “first skyscraper”

This Month's Grand Old Building

Originally published February 2015
Torrey Building | 314 West Superior Street | Architects: Traphagen & Fitzpatrick | Built: 1892 | Extant

In 1892 a former U. S. Cavalry officer from St. Louis arrived in Duluth and promptly proceeded to pick out a lot on the lower 300 block of West Superior Street, hire Duluth’s premier architects, and build the Zenith City’s first “skyscraper,” a brick-and-terra cotta masterpiece that stood ten stories above Superior Street and rose eleven above Michigan Street. This dependable building has continuously served Duluth for 122 years, and for about 30 years Duluthians literally set their watches by it.

That cavalry officer, Captain Robert Augustus Torrey, was born in 1839 in Pittsfield, Illinois, and grew up in Louisiana and Missouri. During the Civil War he fought with the 13th Illinois Infantry and by January 1862 had achieved the rank of second lieutenant. He survived the war—as did his brother, Colonel Jay L. Torrey—and afterward remained in the military, joining the U.S. Cavalry as a captain.

Torrey was sent to Wyoming while his brother began a law practice. Captain Torrey was placed in charge of Camp Brown. In 1878 the camp was renamed Fort Washakie, and that year Torrey resigned his post. He had convinced his brother to come to Wyoming and try their hands at ranching and real estate. In Thermopolis, Wyoming, they managed a large cattle and cavalry horse ranch, supplying the cavalry with horses. Jay also became involved in Wyoming politics. The brothers returned to Missouri, settling in St. Louis some time in the 1880s.

Colonel Jay Torrey lived a much more storied life than his older brother the Captain, who lived in Duluth for less than a decade but left behind a legacy that still serves the Zenith City today.(Image: Public Domain)

Jay made a name for himself by revising a bill for a federal bankruptcy law in the late 1880s. While the bill passed the House in 1890, it couldn’t get through the Senate. Jay Torrey spent until 1897 trying to push it through, and a revised (and renamed) version of the bill passed that year. Colonel Torrey is also credited with coming up with the idea for the “Rough Riders,” cavalry volunteers who fought in the Spanish American War. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Colonel Torrey was placed in charge of his own regiment, but it never saw action. A train derailment cost the life of one volunteer and crushed Torrey’s feet.

Meanwhile, the Colonel’s older brother had been expanding his real estate interests. It isn’t clear what brought him to Duluth in 1892, or even if his stay at the Spalding Hotel in May of that year was his first visit to the Zenith City, but he was soon ensconced in Duluth Society. By 1893 he had not only joined the Kitchi Gammi Club, but was living at its headquarters in the Glencoe Building. Moreover, his building was complete.

Construction had begun in late 1892 under the direction of contractor James McMillen, but not without a delay. In December the steamer Northerner sank in Lake Michigan with structural steel for the Torrey Building and Jefferson Elementary onboard. In January, iron worker Frank Smith of Chicago fell off that structural steel; the eight-story drop killed him.

George Thrana’s stone-carving work was the highlight of the Torrey Building’s original two-story Superior Street entrance. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The eleven-story structure was faced with pressed brick and trimmed in brownstone from Port Entry, Michigan. The same brownstone was used in the building’s two-story, three-bay Superior Street façade, which Duluth’s master stone carver George Thrana adorned it with lion’s heads, swags, floral designs, arched windows, and the words “Torrey Building” above a grand entrance that contained a central stairway. The Superior Street façade was very much in keeping with what Duluthians had come to expect from the building’s architect, Oliver Traphagen—heavy, Richardsonian Romanesque architecture with plenty of ornamentation.

But floors three through nine were decidedly different, and perhaps show the influence of Traphagen’s business partner, Francis Fitzpatrick. Except for a continuous red sandstone sill, those upper floors were faced entirely with brick and free from decorative elements; all the windows are rectangular. At floor ten the Romanesque look returns to tie the two stylistic approaches together. On the tenth floor the windows are arched, and three ocular windows are set above the central bay; it is topped with a low decorative parapet capped with bronze coping.

Nye’s Studio in Duluth produced this watercolor postcard of the Torrey Building, likely produced in 1893. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

When all was said and done, Torrey had spent $300,000 for his office tower—about $7.8 million today. Despite its grand height, the most innovative aspect of the Torrey was its fireproofing system. The Torrey was one of the first buildings in the U.S. to use cutting-edge fireproofing techniques, such as using a steel structural skeleton and covering wooden beams with terra cotta.

The fireproofing alone cost $30,000 (about $780,000 today), but it also gave Captain Torrey a marketing advantage during a time when Duluth buildings were burning to the ground, in part because the city’s water system didn’t supply sufficient pressure. The Torrey was soon filled with tenants involved with white-collar concerns: loan brokerages, law offices, a district court judge, the Graham School of Shorthand, etc. Traphagen & Fitzpatrick also set up office inside the Torrey. Fitzpatrick would be recognized as a pioneer of fireproof construction—why not set up shop in a building that exemplifies your finest, latest work?

Another early tenant of the Torrey Building was Miller’s Café, a descendant of the Miller Cafeteria J. W. Miller founded in 1887. The Miller Café would later move to the Medical Arts Building and was operated by the Miller family until 1953 (in 1959 it became The Captain’s Table, which closed in 1972).

In 1900 Captain Torrey moved to New York City, where he stayed the rest of his life. Local real estate man E. P. Alexander took over operation of the building for Torrey. The Captain remained a frequent visitor to the Zenith City and maintained his memberships at the Kitchi Gammi Club and Northland Country Club. In 1902 he purchased a lot at the corner of 12th Avenue East and Superior Street, where he planned to build a three-story flat building; for whatever reason, it never went up.


The Torrey Building photographed in 1925. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The Time Ball
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Torrey Building was installed on its roof. In 1898 a U.S. Hydrographic Office was established in Duluth, and it set up shop in the Torrey Building. This was a very-deliberate decision, as the Torrey was the tallest building in the city and that’s exactly what the Hydrographic Office needed for its time ball.

The Hydrographic Office was part of the Department of the Navy, intended to help mariners navigate. It was establishing stations in major ports along America’s coasts and on the Great Lakes, including New York City, Buffalo, Cleveland and Duluth. One feature of the office was the time ball—literally a ball that dropped from a rod at precisely noon each day, based on a telegraph signal sent from the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. It was designed to allow ship and ore-boat captains to set their chronometers accurately. In Duluth (and elsewhere, we assume) local residents and businesses who could see the ball also used it to to set their mechanical clocks and watches.

The catch was that while the federal government ran the station, the local municipality was expected to pay for the ball, and Duluth did not respond in a timely manner. It took until 1902—and pressure from various business groups—before Duluth purchased the machinery. The apparatus cost $500; the ball itself was four feet, ten inches in diameter and weighed 150 pounds.

The Torrey Building’s time ball photographed for the Duluth News Tribune in 1921. (Image: Zenith City Press)

If the time ball reminds you of the ball dropped from One Times Square in New York each New Year’s Eve, it should: that’s a time ball, but not the city’s official time ball. The Hydrographic Office’s New York City time ball sat atop the Western Union Building. The “New Year’s Eve” ball was installed on One Times Square by that building’s owner, Adolph Ochs, who also owned the New York Times, at the time housed at One Times Square. Ochs used the time ball to replace a New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration he had started a few years earlier. New York’s ball first dropped to indicate the new year as 1907 turned to 1908.

Interestingly enough, the same year Captain Albert Swenson of the U.S. Hydrographic Office in Duluth attached eight red electric globes to the ball above the Torrey and dropped it at midnight as well. While the News Tribune called this idea Swenson’s innovation, it is likely that Ochs’s plan had been well publicized in newspapers across the country. And even if Swenson’s idea was independent of Ochs’s, the ball dropped in New York City an hour before it did in Duluth, so New York remains the first city to drop an illuminated ball on New Year’s Eve, but Duluth could well be the second.

Newspapers indicate that this tradition lasted several more years in Duluth, perhaps more. Most of the U.S. time balls were dismantled by 1922, after radio time signals introduced during World War I rendered them obsolete. Duluth’s stood atop the Torrey Building until at least 1928, when the <Duluth Herald> felt compelled to explain to its readers exactly what that ball on top of the Torrey was for. It was likely gone by 1936, when the Naval Observatory’s own time ball was decommissioned.

The Torrey Loses Its Status
In 1910 the Torrey lost its title as “Duluth’s Tallest Building” when the 16-story Alworth Building went up two doors east. Six years later Torrey himself died of a stroke in New York; he was 76. His brother Jay visited the Zenith City to settle his affairs, which were hung up in probate court for some time. The building was eventually sold to W. S. Moore Realty for $250,000 (about $4.5 million today) under the management of Whitney Wall, who had taken over from Alexander in 1906.

The Torrey Building’s grand Superior Street entrance was reduced to this modern design in 1961, as seen in this photograph made in 1963. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Moore Realty still owned the building in 1961, when the firm hired architects Morgenstern & Stanius to replace the grand brownstone façade of the first two floors. George Thrana’s carvings were chipped off and covered with grey granite panels, removing much of the building’s character. By 1992 the building was owned by the Amendola family and managed by Bowman realty. That year they renovated the building, replacing the mechanical systems and converting from steam to electric heat with individual heating/cooling units on each floor. The elevators were upgraded and the Michigan and Superior Street lobbies were renovated.

Today the building is owned by Torry [sic] LLC of Brainerd, Minnesota, and houses roughly forty tenants, including Saturn Systems, Duluth Building Trades Welfare and Vacation Funds, Glyphics Design, Harbor City Psychological Associates, Lake Superior Humane Society, the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling, Northland Special Event, Ten Talent Capital Management, and several law offices.

There are at least a dozen buildings in Duluth today that eclipse the height of Duluth’s “First Skyscraper,” and a new 11-story headquarters for Maurices, Inc. is going up a block away from the Torrey as this is being written in February, 2015. The majority of those tall buildings are hotels or housing facilities for seniors and low-income individuals built since 1969, and nearly all stand as unremarkable examples of modern architecture. The Torrey may have lost the façade that made it one of the more unique buildings that ever stood in the Zenith City, but the fact that it still serves Duluth 122 years after it was built is nothing less than remarkable and a testament to the forethought of its architects and financier. If properly maintained, it could serve for another 120.

[Scroll down for a photo of the Torrey Building circa 1930.]


Tony Dierckins’ Grand Old Buildings column previews a book of the same name Zenith City Press is working to release in 2017. In the meantime, you can catch up on previous installments here; and preview every book by Zenith City Press here.

The Torrey Building photographed around 1930. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)


This Month's Grand Old Building

2 Responses to Captain Torrey and Duluth’s “first skyscraper”

Leave a reply