Originally published October, 2014.
When the Company E of the 3rd regiment of the Minnesota National Guard formed in Duluth in 1908, space began getting tight at the 1896 Armory. It was originally built to hold Companies A & C, but now also held company E and two naval militias as well. Soon the national guard and civic leaders were calling for a new armory and city market that could handle the drilling, firing range, and storage space for the military, a market for Duluth farmers, and a performing space that could help Duluth become a convention center. An editorial in the Duluth News Tribune in 1909 called the 1896 armory, “An overgrown barn in which no one but a human calliope can be heard. it is neither seated, heated, nor finished, and no public meetings are held there except under compulsion.” It would take six more years before Duluth got its new armory.
The 1909 editorial was echoed the following February after the Duluth Police Department held its annual ball at the facility and the News Tribune announced the turnout was so large that the “Crowd Is Too Big for Armory.” By 1912 newspapers were writing editorials about the building’s use as a public market, calling it “wholly unfit” and “just a big, bare, gloomy room in which a lot of stuff is stored.” Later that year more than 200 farmers signed a petition demanding the city market be relocated.
The movement to build a new armory really started rolling in April, 1913, after a meeting of the Military Lunch Club of Duluth’s Third Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard during which Colonel F. E. Resche explained that the state would provide $15,000 per company toward the construction of a new armory. With three infantry companies and two naval militias, that would be $75,000. The city would be responsible for the remainder of building costs.
The initial plan called for a three-story building with a basement 200 feet long by 150 feet wide, estimated to cost $80,000, making Duluth’s investment just $5,000—but the larger question was where to put it. The first site, at the foot of 13th Avenue East at London Road just west of the 1912 Curling Club, became highly controversial: it was smack dab in the middle of Lake Shore Park, which later became Leif Erikson Park. As the News Tribune reminded Duluthians, that land had been purchased by the city from the Northern Pacific Railway “on condition that it would not be used for any but park purposes.”
Despite this, Mayor William Prince and other city officials initially thought it was the best location and even offered an easement to park land “for use by the military as drill grounds.” The News Tribune agreed, even suggesting that the marching soldiers would attract thousands to the park, and certainly the Northern Pacific would consent to this adaptation of park use, even if the city was handing over part of the park to the state of Minnesota.
But then, just as the cry council was about to vote on the issue, two Duluthians—Victor Stearns and F. W. Paine—protested the sale. They told the council that residents along London Road—who had contributed half the $20,000 cost of the park land—should be consulted before the city made any decisions. Both men lived on London Road between 10th and 11th Avenue East. Paine was a banker and had been a Park Commissioner from 1889 to 1891; his son, F. Rodney Paine, would serve as Duluth’s parks Superintendent from 1926 to 1938. Stearns was the son of Judge Ozora P. Stearns, a developer of Lakeside—Lester Park was named Stearns Park until it was donated to the city. Stearns told the council, “The residents who contributed to buy the park are opposed to giving away part of it…. This is the only park on the lake front, and we don’t want to see it given away. I appeal against the proposed deed on the ground of ordinary honesty.”
The council took no action. In October attorneys advised the mayor that the council did not have the legal authority to give away property belonging to the city, and the proposal was abandoned. The city instead chose a site directly across London Road from the curling club, at the northeast corner along Thirteenth Avenue East. The sale of bonds would provide the city’s end of the financing as well as the money needed to purchase the building site.
On November 3, 1913, local newspapers ran a sketch of the proposed armory designed by Duluth architectural firm of Kelly & Williams. Clyde Wetmore Kelly, a Chicago native, learned his trade working for John J. Wangenstein and German & Lignell before partnering with O. J. Williams, but his most prominent work would come after 1917 when he began a practice with Thomas J. Schefchik, with whom he designed Morgan Park’s high school. Kelly & Williams may have had an inside track on the job: Kelly, also a licensed master ship pilot, belonged to Duluth’s Naval Militia. In 1918 he was called to duty as America entered the war in Europe and commanded the U.S.S. Massachusetts until 1919. When Duluth naval militia commander Captain Guy Eaton died unexpectedly in 1924, Kelly took over his duties.
The city spent most of 1914 trying to secure the new property. At first, owner John L. Dodge demanded $20,000 for the site, which the Duluth News Tribune called “100 per cent more than the property is worth.” The city threatened to condemn of the property, and Dodge lowered his price to $16,000. Mayor Prince also tried to raise some money by demolishing sections of Point of Rock and selling the rubble to the Armory’s contractors and other building projects. As the year came to a close it was announced that construction would begin before the winter was out, and that the building’s estimated cost had risen to $112,000.
In February the city announced that it had awarded the construction contract to the firm of George H. Lounsberry, a prominent Duluth builder. Work began that month. One of the first engineering concerns was what to do with Chester Creek, which ran through the property; the fix was a culvert that ran through the building’s subbasement and added another $2,500 to the project (that culvert was damaged during the 2012 flood; read about it and other Duluth tunnels here). Meanwhile, seven plans for the building’s exterior were considered and rejected, all due to added cost, and the latest facade, according to the News Tribune, would make the building look like a “factory.” The newspaper advocated spending an additional $8,000 so that the building would look “more imposing” and “can be made a source of pride…as the central lake shore feature seen from incoming passenger boats.”
Building progressed over the summer in anticipation of a November 22 grand opening. A story in the Duluth News Tribune in late October showed a photograph of the facility’s basement rifle range and observed that a 60 x 20-foot portion of the floor would be filled with sand so that Duluth militiamen could “indulge in the indoor sport of digging trenches” and pitching tents. Another portion of the basement was set aside for a swimming pool.
Meanwhile, a report on November 1 declared that the building’s final costs would come to $150,000, as the building would now be home to not only Duluth’s three infantry divisions and two naval militias, but also an additional naval militia, a hospital corp, and the Third Regiment Band. The 107,000+ square-foot building would contain a 103 x 187-foot drill floor—the largest in Minnesota—and “65 rooms for lockers, paraphernalia, storage, and club quarters.” Its assembly hall—which doubled as performance space—was 45 x 90 feet, and the largest in the city at the time. Company quarters were located on the second floor, and all overlooked a balcony to the drill hall below. The third floor held an auditorium, dressing and lounging rooms, a kitchen, and quarters for the regimental band.
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