Originally published March, 2015
The Lonsdale Building
302 West Superior Street
Architects: Palmer, Hall & Hunt
When the first Duluth Board of Trade building went up at 302–304 West Superior Street in 1885—two years before Duluth regained its city status—it stood as a symbol of the Zenith City’s grit, determination, and promising future. When it came crashing down in flames in 1894—in the midst of a national depression—it was symbolic of just how tenuous that future might be. And it left a big whole in the midst of some prime downtown real estate, a hole that would be filled with the Lonsdale Building—built not by Duluth business leaders but by eastern investors with no known connections to the Zenith City and money inherited from one of the nation’s most ardent proponents of slavery.
After the 1894 fire, the Board of Trade chose to build their new headquarters at 301 West First Street and put the former location up for sale. The site was purchased by Brown Real Estate of Providence, Rhode Island. At the turn of the century Brown Real Estate would become the property of newborn John Nicholas Brown II, dubbed the “richest baby in the world.” He is thought to have inherited over $4 million upon his birth February 21, 1900, estimated at more than $112 billion today (yes, billion with a “b”). A newspaper account of the property purchase stated that the Rhode Island company owned “other valuable property in Duluth and throughout the northwest.” This included the Stone-Ordean-Wells facility at South Fifth Avenue West and Railroad Street.
Brown II—aka “Baby Brown”—was the direct descendant of John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, described as “an American merchant, slave trader, and statesman.” He fought for American freedom, instigating the 1772 Gaspee Affair, yet argued aggressively against abolition—often with his brother Moses, who opposed slavery. Along with Moses and a third brother brother, Nicholas, John Brown I founded Brown University as the College of Rhode Island.
Brown Real Estate chose to name its Duluth building after the Rhode Island village of Lonsdale, originally part of the town of Smithfield in Providence County and today part of a historic district. He hired local architects Palmer, Hall & Hunt to design his Duluth building, and Zenith City contractor George Lounsberry to construct it.
At the time, Brown Real Estate couldn’t have chosen better local companies to oversee its Duluth investment. Palmer, Hall & Hunt designed Duluth’s 1892 High School (“aka “Old Central”) and had become the architects of choice for the Duluth school district; the firm also designed he Duluth Normal School (aka “Old Main). Lounsberry had already constructed some of the “largest buildings Duluth had ever seen” and would later construct the unique concrete houses of Duluth’s Morgan Park, built as a company town for U. S. Steel.
The first Board of Trade Building was a wood-framed structure faced with brick and brownstone, but its replacement would be much more fireproof. Like the Torrey Building just a few doors west, the Lonsdale would be made as fireproof as possible. But while the Torrey (and others) included not only steel framework but also cast iron pillars and wooden timbers wrapped in terra cotta, the Lonsdale was the first building in Duluth entirely framed with steel—600 tons of it.
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