Lost Landmark: Duluth’s “pride and joy”

A (colorized) sketch of Duluth’s 1883 Grand opera House by its architect, George Wirth. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

In the early 1880s, after the developing grain trade helped Duluth recover from the financial panic of 1873, pioneers and civic leaders Roger Munger and Clinton Markell felt the city’s growing population could support a major theater to attract musical, dramatic, and literary productions. They hired St. Paul architect George Wirth to design the Grand Opera House, which stood at 333 West Superior Street—the northeast corner of Superior and Fourth Avenue West. Perhaps the most architecturally adorned building that ever graced Duluth, it would serve Duluth for just six years.

The Grand Opera House stood four stories tall and was capped with a Mansard roof executed in several different shades of purple and crowned with iron cresting. Its exterior walls were brick with terra cotta and brownstone trim. Its central pavilion along Superior Street featured the grand entrance over which sat an arched balcony and a dome with dormers, columns, and finials. A round tower topped the building’s corner, and the entire building was adorned with a profusion of carved ornamentation. The building was fitted for steam, water, and gas and included a hydraulic elevator.

The interior of the Grand Opera House. Note the private box at left. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

The auditorium held 1,000 seats at a time when only 13,000 people lived in Duluth; it could house 8 percent of the entire population. At thirty-three feet deep, fifty-two feet wide, and thirty-five feet high, its stage was unusually large for its day. It was built by master stage carpenter G. H. Carter of Chicago. The Duluth Weekly Tribune announced that, “There is no modern improvement or convenience that he has not adopted.” The stage was outfitted with a “dozen sets and fifty or more wing pieces” and two drop curtains. One curtain showed a view of Venice, Italy, and the other was “of satin of old gold color, with heavy trimming at the bottom of crimson and gold.” At $1,100—nearly $41,000 today—the curtain was described as “the most costly in America.”

The theater held six private boxes holding a total of thirty-two seats. The Duluth Weekly Tribune described their lavishness: “over the upper box a very handsome ‘hood’ in ornamental and gilded iron work reaches to the ceiling. The boxes are enclosed by nickel-plated rails, and draped with maroon silk and blue Turkish satin curtains.”

Duluth’s social elite, including Luther Mendenhall and Judge J. D. Ensign, scrambled for the best private box in the house but were outbid by A. J. Whiteman. They were all in attendance opening night, September 20, 1883, when the Emma Abbott Opera Company presented the popular opera Martha to a full house, which included architect George Wirth and his wife, who traveled from St. Paul for the event. (Read more about opening night here.)

Duluth’s Grand Opera House. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Duluthians relished their elegant show place—the Duluth Daily News referred to it as “Duluth’s pride and joy.” In addition to the auditorium, which brought world-class entertainment to Duluth, the Grand Opera House served Duluth in many other ways. It was home to the Chamber of Commerce, the Ladies Literary Library (which would evolve into the Duluth Public Library), a few sleeping rooms, Gasser’s Grocery, several offices (including those of the West Duluth Land Company and Munger and Markell’s Lake Superior Elevator Company) and the Kitchi Gammi Club, which occupied most of the top floor.

Only six years after the Grand Opera House opened, a disastrous fire of unknown origin began in Grasser’s Grocery on the bitterly cold night of January 28, 1889. The Duluth Daily News cited fire fighting delays and blunders for allowing it to grow out of control. Fire spread rapidly, leaving the building in ruins.

Twelve people were asleep inside, including the janitor and his family. The last one out was A. J. Whitemen, who later became notorious as a forger known as “Jim the Penman.” Then a “handsome” senator, Whiteman was saved when he crawled out of a third-floor window and down a ladder; years later he would be captured by Pinkerton detectives attempting to escape them from his family home in New York by crawling out of a third-story window and down a ladder.

The next day the last standing brick wall collapsed, killing Elmer Chamberlain, who was working next door at the book and stationery store he owned with William. S. Albertson. The theater was not rebuilt; the following year the original Phoenix Block was constructed on the site. In 1994, that building was also destroyed by fire; the building that replaced it is also called the Phoenix Block.

It wasn’t long before Duluth had two grand theaters to replace the Opera House: The Temple Opera House and the Lyceum Theatre.

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[Editor’s note: Most of this article was adapted from Lost Duluth: landmarks, Industries, Buildings, Homes, and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood by Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton (Zenith City Press, 2012).

5 Responses to Lost Landmark: Duluth’s “pride and joy”

  1. Hi Laurie! Thanks for the kind words. Even though it is based on my book, I was not part of “Lost Duluth II” and am interested to see where it differs from the book. As for that slab, it could have been from any of a number of structures, as there was a pavilion, engine house, etc. at the top of the incline. They likely didn’t bother to pour a concrete slab for the hot air balloon, though. You can contact us at info [@] zenithcity.com

  2. HI, Tony!! Looking so forward to “Lost Duluth II” coming soon on PBS. Got your first book…and being the history kook that I am, it was a perfect read. Or as Chuck F. calls me, “nut for nostalgia”. I saw the short preview tonight on ch. 8. There were a couple of people walking into the woods, (one was probably you, but it was from behind)…it looked like the spot where the Incline pavilion once stood. A couple of years ago my husband, Jim and I, were scouting around up there, and came across a concrete slab..a floor of some kind. Maybe that is in your book!? It was buried under lots of leaves and underbrush, but uncovering it was awesome! We think maybe it could’ve ben the base for the hot air balloon? Anyway, may I send you some photos that I took of it? Let me know if it’s the same great “find” you may or may not have come across. :)) If you want to give me your email address…cool! Thanks…happy history hunting! Laurie

  3. Tony: will be happy to send the scans your way shortly. Love the work you have been doing with this website and your book! –JMichel

  4. John: Thanks so much for adding these fascinating aspects to the history of Duluth’s Grand Opera House. Would love to see scans of those images you found on eBay!

  5. Soprano Emma Abbott (1850 – 1891) opened the Duluth Grand Opera House. She was a pretty big deal in her day. She sang at London’s Covent Garden Opera House, for example, but was released from her contract there in 1876 when she refused to sing the role of the demi-mode courtesan Violetta in “La Traviata” on moral grounds.

    A Wikipedia entry on her notes: “In 1878 she organized the Abbott English Opera Company, which toured extensively throughout the United States. Although the company’s repertoire included works from the French, Italian and English operatic literatures, they always performed in English. Many of the works were abridged and interpolated songs were commonplace. For this reason the company and Abbott were not popular with many music critics who were not happy with the changes to the standard repertoire. However, the company was incredibly popular with the public and was consistently financially successful. Abbott herself became known among Americans as ‘the people’s prima donna.'”

    The last big act to play the Grand Opera House in Duluth was the English singer and acress Helen Barry.

    The Duluth Daily News, in a story that appeared the day after the Grand Opera burned down, speculated (rather wildly) that a string of unfortunate accidents involving this singer was no coincidence:

    “Brought to this country to reopen the Union Square, prevented by fire from appearing in St. Paul, she left this house after a three nights’ engagement just before its incineration. Is Miss Barry the original fire fiend?”

    — John Michel

    P.S. I bought an old Duluth Opera House program on Ebay for a production of Franz Abt’s children’s opera “Little Snow White” THAT came to the stage of the Duluth Grand Opera House for two performances on June 19 and 20, 1888. I also acquired via eBay a stereopticon photo of the exterior of the building.

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