324 West Superior Street | Architect: Ernest R. Erickson | Built: 1933 | Extant
When Marshal H. Alworth built the Alworth Building in 1910, newspapers raved about its modern design and the fact that it had been constructed in a very short time—nine months from groundbreaking to grand opening. In 1933, when Alworth’s son Royal D. Alworth built Duluth’s Medical Arts building just two lots east of the Alworth, the press also noted the building’s look and the speed with which it went up, but Royal’s highly respected father and his building were not even mentioned in the papers. Marshall H. Alworth had died three year earlier, and Royal no longer sat in his shadow. He not only built Duluth’s most significant piece of Art Deco architecture, but he did it in the middle of the Great Depression.
Royal D. Alworth was born in Duluth in 1889 and followed in Marshall’s footsteps, becoming involved in his father’s mining and real estate ventures, promoting and operating manufacturing and industrial properties. He would eventually take his father’s place as president of the Oneida Realty Co., which operated Duluth’s Alworth, Medical Arts, the WEBC (aka the 1937 Providence), and the Northland buildings. He served as president or director of a number of firms, including Consolidated Abstract Co., Alworth Land and Improvement Co., Northern Minnesota National Bank, Duluth Terminal and Cold Storage Co., the British American Timber Co., and Chicago’s McGraw Electric Co. He also acted as president of the Kitchi Gammi Club and Chairman of Duluth Red Cross, and sat on the Duluth Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
His Medical Arts Building would follow two current trends sweeping the nation: Art Deco architecture and buildings designed specifically to serve physicians, dentists, and their patients. At first he considered converting the 1894 St. Louis Hotel into an office building, but after an exhaustive study that found that Duluth had a large physician-to-patient ratio—about 40 percent greater than the national average—he decided a new building was in order, one with facilities for medical practitioners. The Duluth Herald reported that “Only doctors affiliated with and approved by the medical and dental societies were to be considered.” The building, its builder promised, would be large enough to hold “80 percent of the whole medical profession in Duluth.” Alworth announced his plans on March 1, 1932, and on May 19 demolition began. It took two months to tear down the St. Louis, at the time the largest building ever purposely demolished in Duluth.
Alworth hired Duluth native Ernest R. Erickson to design his building. The architect began his career as an engineer and was thought to be the only man at the head of the lakes to register as both an architect and an engineer. His career began in Wisconsin, but following service in World War I he was hired to oversee construction of the Minnesota Steel Plant’s steel-and-wire facility in Duluth. After that he took an office in the Alworth Building and hung out his architect’s shingle. He would later design the Miller Memorial Hospital.
Erickson looked to current building trends for inspiration. The Art Deco movement was sweeping the nation. It favored vertical lines and little adornment, unlike the Richardsonian Romanesque buildings that went up during the boom years between 1887 and 1900. Like the St. Louis Hotel that the new building would replace, Romanesque buildings were broad, heavy buildings made of brick and brownstone favoring horizontal lines. The Alworth Building rests somewhere in between, a tall building emphasizing vertical elements, yet still highly adorned with terra-cotta elements.
Erickson’s design separates the building into three distinct sections along Superior Street, two nine-story outer bays framing a central bay 12 stories high (with the Michigan Street level, the building is technically 13 stories high). The first floor along Superior Street rests on a black granite base, and its storefront windows were originally encased in bronze. Flat limestone panels made of processed cast vibrated stone face the entire building. The windows and bronze spandrels create dark vertical lines that contrast with the lighter limestone piers. The building’s only exterior adornments are two reliefs depicting the head of Native Americans at the top of the right and left piers of the Superior Street façade. The Duluth Herald explained that the reliefs “are symbolic of the Indian medicine man of the Arrowhead region.”
Workers broke ground September 1, 1932. During the course of construction some 600 men were employed, following a three-shift-a-day schedule. This is particularly remarkable when you considered that 1932 was the economic low point of the Great Depression. By Christmas it was completely enclosed. On March 28, less than seven months after work began, the Chamber of Commerce began moving into its new offices in the Medical Arts Building. Physicians and dentists were relocating on the 30th and 31st. The Medical Arts Building was declared officially complete May 1; it had cost Oneida Realty $1 million to build, about $18 million today.