Duluth’s 1902 Public Library

This Month's Grand Old Building

The Duluth Public Library under construction in 1901. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Work began on July 4, 1901, when ground was broken for construction by the firm of Pearson and Fawcett, whose bid of $72,000—almost $1.9 million today—had secured them the building contract. The cornerstone included a time capsule containing a copy of Central High’s 1901 Zenith yearbook, a photo of Carnegie, and—perhaps because of Carnegie’s Scottish ancestry—a list of Duluth’s members of the Clan Stewart. Construction lasted a year.

The Duluth Public Library shortly after it opened in 1902. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The result was a two-story building in the Neo-Classical style faced entirely of brownstone quarried at Flag River, Wisconsin. Its Second Street façade includes a grand entrance supported by Ionic columns, and the pediment above the entry is inscribed simply “Duluth Public Library.” Its most striking feature is the low circular dome that caps the building. It contains an oculus—essentially a window at its center—which brings in light from above.

Taken from the center of the rotunda, this photograph shows the stairway to the conference room, the only room on the building’s second floor. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Because of its setting on Duluth’s Hillside, the main entrance actually opens to the building’s basement, which contains the boiler room, restrooms, and other utilitarian facilities. To access to the first floor patrons ascend a white marble staircase with bronze filligre handrails. When the library opened, the octagonal space directly under the dome—measuring 32 feet across—was the location of the circulation desk and card catalog. On the outside rim of the rotunda ionic columns—made of concrete but finished to resemble green marble—framed entries to a Reference, Reading Room, Children’s Reading Room, Newspaper Room, Fiction Room, Librarian’s office, and the stacks. The only room on the second floor was originally the board room.

The reading room was in the southwest corner of the building. This space contains a large carved sandstone fireplace. The Minnehaha Window was installed along its eastern wall—but not without some trouble. As we’ve mentioned before here on Zenith City, 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 magnate E. P. Alexander, the new owner the Temple Opera Block—the Masons were building a new facility at 4 West Second Street. Alexander claimed, “It is a fixture of the building and belongs to me.”  But after some pressure by city attorney Oscar Mitchell, Alexander called Lydia Poirer, the head librarian, and told her “It’s mine, but I will donate it to the library.”

The stacks of the 1902 Duluth Public Library—note the glass block floors. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Another window—the “Greysolon Window,” also designed by Weston—was then commissioned by the Greysolon Duluth Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in honor of Duluth’s namesake. When finished, it was hung alongside the Minnehaha.

On April 20, 1902, the Duluth News Tribune offered this description of other interior appointments: “The dome was finished in an ornamental plastering…green pillars of cement which make up a striking imitation of marble, show up finely against the white. The marble and tile work is also very tasteful. The entrance has marble wainscoting and all the flooring is tile, with the exception of the stack rooms, where glass is used.” That’s right, the stack rooms have (or, mostly, had) glass block floors. The flooring “tile” is actually a Terrazzo finish.

The 1902 library’s Reading Room. (Image Duluth Public Library)

The building was dedicated on April 19, 1902, in a simple ceremony in which Mayor Hugo accepted the building from Pearson & Fawcett on behalf of Duluth’s citizens. Many Duluthians were on hand for the ceremony, which included music from Flaaten’s orchestra and songs sung by Anna Farrell. Within four years the library would boast a collection of over 45,000 volumes.

The facility was not without its problems. As early as 1904 newspapers reported that the roof leaked “like a sieve.” By 1908, the roof had to be completely rebuilt at a cost of over $10,000, or $250,000 today. Annual reports spoke of space issues until 1921, when it was declared that the city had already outgrown its library. Duluth had already added several branch libraries throughout the city: West Duluth in 1912, Lincoln in the West End in 1917, Morgan Park also in 1917. In 1926 it would open a branch in Lester Park, and another in Woodland in 1928. The Library was also operating a book mobile.

Children on the steps of the Duluth Public Library in 1907 after enjoying “Story Hour.” (Image: Duluth Public Library)

But those branches and services weren’t enough, and between the construction of the Lester Park and Woodland facilities an addition was made to the 1902 library. Rooms were added to the rear of the building, providing more room for stack and other facilities—a provision Rudolph had included in his original plans. The addition cost $45,000, nearly $600,000 today.

The addition, branches, and library services and programs—seem to have sufficed for a few decades at least. But by 1966 an extensive study by Frederick Wazeman of the University of Iowa Library School showed tht the library was “outmoded, outdated, inefficient and uneconomical to operate.” The times had changed since Rudolph designed a building to hold books and periodicals, and the building was not prepared for technological advances such as microfilm readers, not to mention the computers we now take for granted. Nor would it meet today’s regulations for handicap accessibility

The Duluth Public Library in 1942. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

By 1968 replacing the building had become a priority. During this same period the city had purchased a great deal of the old Bowery section of downtown as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. A site committee chose the entire lower half of the 500 block of West Superior Street for Duluth’s new library. It took eight more years to break ground on the project.

The new library was dedicated June 28, 1980—before any books had even been placed on its shelves. It didn’t open to the public until the following year. When it did open, something else was missing: the Minnehaha and Greysolon windows. The new “ore boat” library didn’t have a place to hang them. They were eventually installed in an addition to the Duluth Union Depot, today’s St. Louis County Arts & Cultural Center.

After it closed, the city sold the 1902 library to a private developer after a public auction stripped the building of most of its furnishings, including the stacks themselves. A company called Historic Development Property Partners purchased the building converted it into 25 office suites.  In 1989 the building was purchased by Christ’s Household of Faith, who in 2002 sold it to Chad and Aubrey Scott for $450,000. The Scotts put considerable time, effort, and financing into the structure. According to the Duluth News Tribune, those renovations included “a new roof, new windows, plaster repair, tuckpointing, a new boiler system and restoration of the central dome.” In 2010 the Scotts put the property up for sale for $862,000.

The building sold in July of 2013 for $600,000. New owners Julie Wicker, Mike Clevette and Tammi Henderson of Accend Properties now own the building, and further renovations are going on both inside and outside the building: once again there is a leak to be dealt with in the domed roof.

Our “Grand Old Buildings” series previews a book in progress, Duluth’s Grand Old Buildings by Tony Dierckins.


2013 Photos of the 1902 Duluth Public Library

(Click the images to make them larger)

Main entrance stairway, Duluth Public Library. (Image: Zenith City)


The oculus of the Duluth Public Library’s dome. (Image: Zenith City)
Detail of ironwork from stair rails in the Duluth Public Library (Image: Zenith City)
Inside the rotunda of the Duluth Public Library (Image: Zenith City)


The fireplace in the Reading Room. (Image: Zenith City)

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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