Duluth’s Silberstein-Bondy Building

A reminder of Duluth’s Jewish pioneers

The Silberstein-Bondy Building photographed in July, 2015. (Image: Zenith City Press)
The Silberstein-Bondy Building photographed in July, 2015. (Image: Zenith City Press)
9–11 West Superior Street | Architect: George Wirth | b. 1884 | Expanded 1902 (F. German) | Remodeled 1927 (Giliusin, Ellingsen & Erickson) | Extant

In 1866, 18-year-old Hungarian-born Bernard Silberstein left Vienna, where he was educated, to emigrate to the United States. He eventually landed in Detroit, but soon after headed to Duluth for, as he often said, “only to look around.” Silberstein must have liked what he saw. He returned to Detroit to marry Ernestine “Nettie” Rose Weiss, also a native of Budapest, then took his bride to the Zenith City for their honeymoon. The Silbersteins stayed, creating Duluth’s first successful dry-goods store and helping to establish it first synagogue, Temple Emmanuel.  Bernard and Nettie, along with brothers Asa and Henry Leopold, were Duluth’s first Jewish residents. Though greatly altered from its original design, Silberstein’s 1884 building stands today as a reminder of two of Duluth’s true pioneers and civic leaders.

Bernard and Nettie Silberstein's 1870 wedding portrait. (Image: Jon Niemi and Dennis Lamkin)
Bernard and Nettie Silberstein’s 1870 wedding portrait. (Image: Jon Niemi and Dennis Lamkin)

Silberstein began his career in Duluth selling items from house to house before he and William Farrell opened what is considered Duluth’s first dry-goods store, which, according to his 1922 obituary, sold “everything imaginable.” (“Dry Goods” defined everything that was not considered hardware or groceries.) Before the year was out, the pair had joined forces with a man named Whitcher to form Whitcher, Silberstein & Company, referred to in newspapers as “Whitcher & Silberstein’s Fancy Furnishings Store.” The partnership was short-lived. By 1872 Silberstein was working with Isaac Bondy under the name B. Silberstein Company. Bondy, who lived and worked in New York City, acted as the company’s purchasing agent. In 1881 they organized the Silberstein & Bondy Company.

The store operated out of several Superior Street buildings, first at 14–16 West Superior Street and then, in 1875, at 405 West Superior Street. In 1884 Silberstein hired St. Paul architect George Wirth to design a new building to house his ever-growing store. Between 1882 and 1886 Wirth designed some of Duluth’s most prominent Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, and his head carpenter Oliver Traphagen built a string of them along the upper zero block of West Superior Street, including a pharmacy for Wirth’s brother Max, which survives today as Lizzard’s Gallery. Traphagen would later take Wirth’s place as Duluth’s premier architect. Part of the construction involved building a private sewer to Lake Avenue, as the trunk sewer along Superior Street had not yet been built.

The Silberstein-Bondy building originally stood two-stories high, faced in brick and red sandstone. The first level was simple: three large windows on either side of a central entrance, so that the merchandise within was always on full display. The second-floor façade was divided into three sections, a large center section with four windows flanked by narrow sections each with a single window. Above the windows, arched brickwork contained carved brownstone friezes of figureheads and cherubs. The entire building was capped with a massive sandstone parapet with more carvings at the corners and the words “Silberstein & Bondy” centered in relief.

When the new building was complete, the dry-goods store occupied the entire first floor. The second floor held the company offices, offices of several lawyers, and, for a time, Mayor J. B. Sutphin. Since Duluth had no city hall until 1889, Sutphin used his office in the Silberstein-Bondy building to conduct city business before moving to the Hosmer Block at 13–15 East Superior Street. (It has often been reported that the building contains the first elevator installed in Duluth, which is still functional, but to date we have found no information to verify this claim.)

This photograph of the Silberstein-Bondy building was made some time after the 1902 addition raised the building to three-stories in height, but before 1927, when the brownstone façade was removed. (Image: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives)
This photograph of the Silberstein-Bondy building was made some time after the 1902 addition raised the building to three-stories in height, but before 1927, when the brownstone façade was removed. (Image: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives)

By the turn of the century, Silberstein & Body was booming along with the rest of Duluth, and both floors and the basement were all dedicated retail space. By then Bondy had set up purchasing office in Paris so that the Duluth store could keep up with all the European fashion trends. In 1902, needing even more space, Silberstein hired architect Frederick German—once a draftsman for Oliver Traphagen—to add 7,000 more square feet to the building. German’s plans added another story to the building; the second-story façade and parapet were raised to the third-floor level, and a new second-floor façade following the same basic design as the original was installed.

A newspaper article about the addition called Silberstein “one of the most public spirited men in Duluth” and that “in a business way he has but few peers and no superiors in this part of the country.”

Indeed, Silberstein was very interested in guiding Duluth forward. He served on Duluth’s Parks Board from 1891 until 1911. In 1913 year Silberstein ran for mayor but was defeated by W. I. Prince in one of the wildest political contests in the history of Duluth. Two years later he ran for city commissioner. Both he and James Farrell, who also lost the mayoral race to Prince in the 1913 election, were elected by wide margins; Farrell was the nephew of William Farrell, Silberstein’s first business partner in Duluth. Silberstein held the office of commissioner of public safety until 1919, when he refused to run for another term.

A reminder of Duluth’s Jewish pioneers

6 Responses to Duluth’s Silberstein-Bondy Building

  1. I get excited each time I find out more about Duluth’s history. The disciplined action taken by men and women who built this great city is truly inspirational.

  2. I believe this is one time when a new facade improved the look of a building, making the loss of the historical look worthwhile. I agree with the others who have responded: Fascinating piece, especially since the building is still there and in active use.

  3. Very Interesting Article Tony!
    This sure is good history information for a short timer Duluthian like me! Keep up the great history lessons! We are loving Duluth more and more with each of these fascinating stories!

  4. What a fantastic, all inclusive, article…I expect we will hear from Len Traubman as he follows Zenith all the time, too… Wonderfully done.

    Dennis

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