Duluth’s Art Deco Masterpiece

The Medical Arts, May’s Grand Old Building

The entry to the Medical Arts Building, still bearing the building's name spelled out in Art Deco inspired lettering. (Image: Zenith City Press)
The entry to the Medical Arts Building, still bearing the building’s name spelled out in Art Deco-inspired lettering. (Image: Zenith City Press)
324 West Superior Street | Architect: Ernest R. Erickson | Built: 1933 | Extant
Royal D. Alworth (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Royal D. Alworth (Image: Duluth Public Library)

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.

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Ernest R. Erickson. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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.

A sketch of Ernest Erickson’s plans for Duluth’s Medical Arts Building. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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.”

The first-floor lobby fo the Medical Arts Building photographed in 2013. (Image: Zenith City Press)
The first-floor lobby of the Medical Arts Building, photographed in 2013. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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.

The Medical Arts, May’s Grand Old Building

9 Responses to Duluth’s Art Deco Masterpiece

  1. Hi Tony,
    Homer Collins (investment broker) was my great-uncle and I suspect his father, my great-grandfather, was a tenant. Dr. Homer Collins was the first Ears, Nose & Throat doctor in MN as was hunting and fishing pals with the Mayo Brothers who believed that the future of medicine way back then WAS speciality medicine. But, the Mayo brothers also believed that the speciality doctors should “group” so they could provide a better prognosis. I’d love to find out how you knew my great-uncle. Post back if you have time.

  2. Nathan: I have not come across anything indicating that those buildings had terraces on the top floor. To find information on “lost” buildings in Duluth, see the book Lost Duluth from our parent company, Zenith City Press. Our look up a specific building in the Duluth Architecture section of the Zenith City History Archive. You will find, however, that the bulk of our information on architecture is about structures constructed prior to Word War II.

  3. I’ve always been curious about the top floor being windowless on the Superior Street side. Also, while not a historic building(yet), the Wells Fargo building’s top floor having windows on the Superior Street side but being open on the other sides with empty square openings. Was there a terrace up there at one time? I’d like to see an article on this building because it is the only large office building built in Duluth in the 50’s and 60’s and mid century design has made a comeback in recent years. I’m also interested in some of the buildings that have been torn down but mostly forgotten such as the Fidelity, the 7 story one where the Government Center is now and the original telephone building; and proposed buildings that never got built.

  4. Dave, thank you! You’ve added another layer to this building’s history. Now we’ll have to dig further into Mr. Hatley….

  5. That is a very interesting article on the Medical Arts Building. I would like to add some information about W. F. Hatley and billiards that will help explain why a billiard hall was located in the newest and most stylish building in the city.

    In those days, billiards (not to be confused with pool) was a big sport in America. The pros made good money, and the game was covered regularly in newspapers across the country. Wealthy Duluthians, such as Chester Congdon and Gust Carlson, had homes built that included billiard rooms.

    W. F. Hatley was a nationally known “shortstop” (second tier) professional player, and won his share of tournaments in the Midwest. I believe he was born in 1850, so by the time the Medical Arts Building was built, he would have been in his early 80’s. He no longer competed at that age, but he probably used the venue to give instructions to up-and-coming players in the city. His billiard hall in the Medical Arts Building was undoubtedly a bit more refined than the typical pool hall.

    Previously, Hatley had the Alhambra billiards and bowling room in the Michigan Street level of the Fargusson building, which burned in 1892. After that, he left Duluth to avoid creditors and went to St. Paul to manage Foley’s billiard parlor. About 1905, He returned to Duluth to open Hatley’s Billiard Parlor in the Rose Room on the ground floor (Michigan Street level) of the St. Louis Hotel. In 1915, Hatley moved his billiard business to the basement of the Columbia (Beal) Building (the entrance on 3rd Ave. West is still there). His billiard hall in the Medical Arts building was probably is last.

    I would appreciate any more information about Hatley or Duluth billiards that you might have.

    Thanks, Dave Hoag, Duluth.

  6. Thanks, Brian. I love it when our readers help us tell a more complete story.

  7. The “black granite” of the street-level facade is Duluth Gabbro from the former McDonald quarry near Angora, Minnesota.

  8. Tony,

    Great article on the Medical Arts Building. However, I suspect that the Investment Firm referred to was Homer Collins, not Home. He later became President of the Duluth Transit Authority.

    I look forward to reading Zenith City On Line every day!

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