Duluth’s 1902 Public Library

This Month's Grand Old Building

Originally published March, 2015

Duluth’s 1902 Public Library

101 West Second Street  |  Built: 1902  |  Architect: Adolph F. Rudolph

The 1902 Duluth Public Library at 101 West Second Street. (Image: Dennis O’Hara)

For those of us who moved to Duluth after 1980, the Duluth Public Library has always been that long, ore boat-like structure across from the Radisson—a sprawling modern building that blocks the view of the historic Union Depot. But for eighty years Duluthians read and researched in a neo-classical building made of brownstone that, while cramped almost from the start, holds a special place in the hearts of those lucky enough to call the Zenith City home while it still served Duluth’s citizens. That building, the 1902 Duluth Public Library (aka the “Carnegie Library”) is also one of the grandest old buildings still standing in the city.

The 1902 library building was the second official home of the Duluth Public Library, which was established in 1889. Prior to that, Duluthians had taken it upon themselves to bring literature to the community. In 1869—a year before Duluth would become a city—local leaders formed the Duluth Library Association. Its roster of officers and board members read like a Who’s Who of early Duluthians: Luther Mendanhall, J. J. Egan, George C. Stone, George Sargent, Luke Marvin, and others.

C. H. Graves, who donated space in his building for Duluth’s first library. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Library Association moved into the second floor of a building owned by Colonel C. H. Graves, located “on Superior Street, opposite the Clark House,” essentially on the lower half of the West 100 block of Superior Street. When it first opened December 1, 1869, the Associations rooms were carpeted and “the walls [were] hung with evergreen wreaths and handsome pictures.” More importantly, its collection already contained 500 volumes, half of which were donated by Frank H. and J. Clark of Philadelphia. The Clarks were the sons of Enoch W. Clark, Jay Cooke’s mentor and namesake of the Clark House; in fact many of the Library Association’s first members had close ties to Cooke.

In July 1870 the library moved  into the Newcomb Block, “opposite the new post office” along First Avenue East between Superior Street and First Street. Dwight Woodbridge became its librarian. But like everything else in Duluth, when Jay Cooke’s wallet emptied, ushering in the Financial Panic of 1873, everything in Duluth struggled to survive. By 1878 the Library Association had dissolved, donating its book to the Board of Education to establish a high school library. After Duluth converted to village status in 1887, there was some effort to keep the idea of a public library alive. The Daily Tribune of July 22, 1881, explains that the public school house had books available that were “rarely or never used” and that they belonged to the Village Library Association, an organization that “exists in name only.”

The following year Reverend C. C. Salter attempted to organize the Duluth Free Reading Room and Library Association, but the idea was complicated by its connection to starting a YMCA at the same time. Possibly frustrated by the pace Salter’s idea getting off the ground, the wives of Duluth’s power brokers met on November 17, 1882, and established the Ladies’ Library Association. They included Caroline Ray, wife of J. D., and Ida Spencer, wife of George, who donated space in the building he owned with Melvin Forbes, the Metropolitan Block at 113–119 West Superior Street.

Duluth’s Grand Opera House, also home of the Ladies’ Library Society. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Forbes and Spencer were part of Duluth’s burgeoning grain trade, investing in grain elevators just as their friends Roger Munger and Clinton Markell. In 1883 Munger and Markell built the Grand Opera House at 333 West Superior Street. When the Opera House opened, the Ladies’ Library Association moved into some rooms on one of its its upper floors. That home lasted until January 29, 1889, when the Opera House and all its contents were consumed by fire.

The Association was left with a check from an insurance company for $500—and nothing else. Meanwhile, Duluth had regained its status as a city in 1887. Instead of rebuilding, the Ladies’ Library Association petitioned the City Council to establish a public library and donated its $500 to jumpstart the library’s funding. In 1890, under Mayor Sutphin, Duluth’s library Board was established with George Spencer as its first president. Other board members included J. D. Ensign, historian Dwight Woodbridge, and Catholic Bishop James McGolrick. The board purchased 200 books and hired Olin S. David of Topeka, Kansas, as head librarian.

The Duluth Public Library’s first home was on the second floor of the Temple Opera Block  (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Meanwhile duluth’s masons had constructed the Temple Opera Block and Temple Opera House, which took the place of the Grand Opera House. On August, 1890, the Duluth Public Library opened on the second floor of the Temple Opera Block—and soon patrons were calling for better facilities: the lighting and ventilation were poor. By 1893 it was considered overcrowded, and the Library began expanding to the third and fourth floors. That same year St. Louis County donated the “Minnehaha Window”—a Tiffany window designed by Duluthian Ann Weston to represent Duluth and St. Louis County at the 1892 World’s Exposition in Chicago—to the public library and the window was hung in one of the library’s rooms in the Temple Opera Block.

The Temple Opera House burned in 1895, but a firewall saved the Temple Opera Block—and the Duluth Public Library. But soon both the Masons and the library board were considering new homes. A site for the library at the northwest corner of Second Street and First Avenue West was chosen because it was close to Central High School. For funding they did the same thing communities across the country were doing at the time: they asked industrialist Andrew Carnegie for money. Carnegie came through with $50,000.

Architect Adolph Rudolph’s plans for the 1902 Duluth Public Library. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The board struggled to choose a design for the building. It came down to two, one by the firm of Radcliffe and Willoughby and another by Adolph Rudolph. The Radcliffe and Willoughby was smaller, but it had the advantage of an estimated cost of $50,000—the same as Carnegie’s gift. But the Library Board soon became convinced that the plans were too small, and they feared the city would quickly outgrow the facility. So they requested another $25,000 from Carnegie, who once again came through with the cash.

With additional funding in place, the Library Board cancelled its contract with Radcliffe and Willoughby and hired Rudolph. (Radcliffe and Willoughby subsequently sued the city, eventually accepting a $750 settlement, about $19,500 today). Beside being an architect, Rudolph was also a beloved teacher of drawing at Duluth Central High School, said to be “a great favorite of the pupils on account of his constant good humor and endless fund of anecdotes.” But despite his attitude the combined work of architect and teaching took too much time, and he retired from Central High while working on the library.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

This Month's Grand Old Building

6 Responses to Duluth’s 1902 Public Library

  1. The Duluth Public Library operated the Hunters Park branch library from 1945-1957 in the basement of the Glen Avon Masonic Lodge (William and Fannie Pryor home) on Roslyn Ave. The Masons modified the house with a library entrance, sidewalk and window. The hardwood floors still show where the stacks sat.

  2. I grew up in West Duluth and, in the summer of ’65, I was a June graduate of UMD. I was lucky enough to receive a job teaching summer school to a group of 7th grade boys who had failed English that year. One of my first goals was to encourage them to read, so I marched them to the downtown library and they all acquired library cards. Thanks for the great article. I haven’t lived in Duluth since August of ’65 but I certainly enjoy all the interesting information you give us.

  3. Such nice, wonderful memories of going to that building. Going to the Library in the 70’s was a highlight of the day. I continued to go a lot to the new one with my daughter. It is such a great investment to children. My daughter has such a love of reading and wants to be a writer someday. She volunteers to a organization called Rolling Readers in Duluth. She reads to a class of 5-6 year old children at Laura MacArthur, and has been since she was 14 and now is almost 23. She utilizes the library almost every week. The staff are so helpful and nice.
    That is why Library’s are important.

  4. Thanks for sharing those memories! The building is still there, just no longer a library. Hopefully if we do end up building new library, it can be a great statement of public pride as this one was; and hopefully no historic building will have to be torn down in order to build it.

  5. As a young girl I was there every week from the mid 40s into the 50s. Checked out five books every week. Used it in high school when at Central and when I took some night courses at UMD before we had the internet, of course. Great building and fond memories. I wish more of these buildings could have been saved.

  6. A very dignified building it was and is. I remember the green scuffed glass floors in the library and my brother telling me to hurry up and get a book before I broke it and fell through. It would be an improvment now to cut down those ugly overgrown bushes that block the view of the building.

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