Originally posted October 2014
In 1883 St. Louis County constructed a modest courthouse in Duluth at 611 East Second Street on land donated by Judge J. D. Ensign. The building was designed to be temporary, and the population boom of the 1880s had rendered it inadequate almost just a few years after it first opened. By 1900, eight inelegant additions had been slapped onto the building—Duluthians began calling it the “Wart House.” They also started calling for its replacement.
The first volley in the battle to build a new courthouse came from Sheriff William W. Butchart in May of 1904. He described the 1883 building’s many shortcomings, then declared that the county was in need of a building that “compare[s] favorably with our magnificent high school building. One million dollars would not be too much to put into a new courthouse.” Like a great many municipal building projects, it would take years of debate and slicing through red tape to get the job done.
Location, Location, Location
The first great debate surrounding the construction of a new courthouse was where to put it. Sheriff Butchart and the majority of county commissioners thought the site of the 1883 building was most appropriate. It was east of Downtown, higher on the hill. From there, proponents said, the new courthouse could be seen from the lake, but if it was moved to a downtown location it would eventually be swallowed by the skyscrapers that would inevitably rise along First and Superior streets. This sentiment was echoed by Judge Page Morris, who said, “A downtown location will result in hemming a new building in with business blocks and spoil the effect of fine architecture.” Besides, they argued, if the courthouse was built elsewhere, ownership of the property the 1883 building sat on would revert back to Judge Ensign.
Building on the old site would save a lot of taxpayers’ money, and so it was also highly favored by “tax payers,” which then meant men who owned a great deal of property. These included such prominent Duluth business leaders as George Barnum, Luther Mendenhall, Melvin J. Forbes, Ward Ames, Sr., Joseph Sellwood, George Spencer, and August Fitger and his business partner, Percy Anneke.
Those on the other side of the argument wanted a location more convenient to downtown, where the area surrounding the Spalding Hotel at 5th Avenue West and Superior Street was considered the city’s “business center.” The 1883 building, they said, was difficult to get to—they wasted time, and therefore money, waiting for streetcars to take them to the present courthouse. They also argued that the present lot was too small for a building to be constructed in anticipation of further population growth, and hardly large enough for the city and county to follow a growing trend in the U.S.: centralizing city, county, and federal municipal facilities in one location, an idea put forth by architect Daniel Burnham’s “City Beautiful” movement. They considered the land-ownership issue moot: after caring for and developing the property or 25 years, the county had fulfilled its end of the contract; Ensign had essentially already given away the land.
More than 1,200 people signed a petition to have the new courthouse located west of Lake Street and above First Street. Many of the supporters were attorneys who spent much of their time in the cramped 1883 courthouse. Other prominent Duluthians, including Captain Alexander McDougall, William Sargent, and Ernie Jefferson, also supported a new location. In January of 1905 the Duluth Commercial Club published a report that said it believed the “the prevailing sentiment of Duluth people that the new courthouse should be located on a site nearer the downtown business district.”
The county commissioners were not moved. In March they were presented with a proposition for a new site somewhere between Lake and Sixth Avenue East between First and Third Streets (there were four location choices; see graphic) and voted 4–3 against the entire proposition. The next month, however, the board changed its mind, passing an almost identical resolution by a vote of 5–1.
The change in position came in response to a bill put forth in the 1905 state legislative session that would create a special court house commission in counties with populations over 75,000. This commission would be responsible for all aspects of construction of a new courthouse, office, or jail and would consist of three county commissioners and two citizens. The county board resented having to share power, called the idea “unnecessary and unwise,” and instructed St. Louis County’s legislative delegation to “use all legitimate means” to defeat the measure. The delegation failed.
For the next two years chaos reigned over the issue. When the County Board ordered condemnation of properties, the assistant county attorney refused: site location and procurement was the duty of the Courthouse Commission; the county board had no authority whatsoever concerning the new courthouse. In July the Duluth News Tribune opined that “The new courthouse is apparently as far away as ever.”
In January 1906 the county board finally recognized the new law, passing a resolution to create a board for a new courthouse on a new site. By March the board had decided on a location: property along the west side of Fourth Avenue East between First and Second Streets, east of the 1889 Post Office and Federal Building at Fifth Avenue West and First Street—essentially the site where Duluth’s 1928 City Hall stands today. That month they started the process of acquiring existing properties.
Click on “2” for the rest of the story….