Originally published September 2014
Like nearly all of the municipal buildings constructed in Duluth between 1889 and 1900, Duluth’s first national guard armory was meant to be a statement that reflected the values of its community. In comparison to most of those facilities—highly ornate Romanesque affairs faced with Lake Superior brownstone—the armory was a rather modest building, although it did share one important trait with the 1889 City Hall, the 1889 St. Louis County Jail, the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters, and the 1892 Federal Customs House and Post Office: within ten years of its construction, it would be considered inadequate, and it would considerable time and effort to replace it.
In June of 1884, a group of Duluthians came together to form the Zenith City’s first company of soldiers for the state’s National Guard. According to historian D. E. Woodbridge, “a number of the younger citizens, devoted to the preservation, protection and defense of their country and state, as well as the manly bearing they would derive from strictly military discipline.” Woodbridge would know: he was one of those younger citizens. His group became known as Company E of Minnesota’s Second Regiment, under the command of Col. Joseph Bobleter. They set up quarters in the Hunter Block, drilled, and practiced handling their Enfield rifles.
In 1889, the regiment was first called out to quell a riot among 2,000 laborers working on the water and light systems in West Duluth. The next year the company moved into a large roller skating rink at First Street and Third Avenue East and put down a riot of lumber mill workers in Cloquet. In 1892 Company E was sent to Tower to suppress rioting miners; they took 31 prisoners.
That same year the Minnesota National Guard reorganized, and Company E of the Second Regiment became Company A of the Third Regiment, and Companies G and H were formed in West Duluth. After the regiment’s Company C was formed in 1894, Duluth became serious about building a proper Armory for the new group and Company A to share that could also serve as a performance space and public marketplace.
The idea was first put forward in 1890 but didn’t gain much traction, but after Company C was formed and West Duluth built a new armory for companies G and H, the boys from Company A—fresh from quelling rioting miners in Virginia—and their new compatriots began pushing the issue on the city council, reminding it that a site had already been secured at the northeast corner of Second Avenue West and First Street at a cost of $25,000 and that the city was also paying $900 a year to rent “quarters not proper for military drill.”
It took until December 17, 1895, for the city to accept a plan for an armory. At the same meeting they hired the architectural firm of Radcliffe and Willoughby to design the structure. The following February the building contract went to C. J. Frederickson for $16,400, but in the end the building would cost about $30,000 (over $825,000 today).
The three-and-a-half story building’s primary façade, according to historian Michael Koop, was “fronted onto First Street and was divided into four large glass storefronts which continued onto the secondary western façade by wrapping the corner, which was set on a diagonal to accommodate a main entry.” Above the third floor’s windows the raised letters “3rd REG ARMORY” are set in a semicircular pattern, and a crenelated, stepped parapet contains in the center the raised numbers “1896.”
While the building was under construction, Mayor Henry Truelson objected to the use of common brick on the façade and was concerned that wooden posts were being used to support the structure. He personally showed his concerns to the architects and engineers, and red-faced brick was acquired and the wooden piers were replaced by new posts made of iron. Despite the brick and parapet, the Duluth News Tribune said the new armory was “without any extraneous adornment and is not much less homely than the proverbial red barn, but it was built for use, not ornament, and it is entirely suitable for the purposes for which it is designed.” Hardly high praise for the architects.
Inside, the main floor occupied a space of 80 x 107 feet, surrounded by a gallery for spectators—all told the space included about 12,000 square feet and could hold 5,000 spectators. It would be used for both the public market and entertainment, such as musical performances and lectures. The main floor was reserved for market space. The second floor was mostly open space and the elevated gallery. The third contained the drill hall as well as rooms for both Companies A and C, storage for their rifles and field camp gear, and personal lockers for each guardsman. There were also two 150-foot long rifle ranges.
The first activity to take place in the Armory—before it was even officially opened or dedicated—was a political lecture by T. V. Powderly, president of the Knights of Labor, who refuted assertions by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan on October 17. On the 22nd, W. E. Brown and Robert Lincoln—son of the 16th president—also spoke at the armory in opposition to Bryan. Both Republicans supported William McKinley. The event tested the building’s capacity for the first time and indeed, according to the News Tribune, 5,000 people attended, with 2,000 filling the gallery meant to hold just 1,500.
Companies A and C made big plans for the building’s dedication on October 29, 1896. They scheduled marches and drilling demonstrations and invited every national guard company in the state. Governor David Clough was invited so that Mayor Truelson could “hand over” the building to the state for use by its guard.
While the event was a big hit, only a handful of other guard companies attended, and the governor was a no show. Still, the parades went on, as well as the drilling exhibitions. And, of course, speeches were made. One of the more interesting statements was made by former mayor Ray T. Lewis: “I will say that the people of Duluth are a kind-hearted people and they will take good care that the wants of their friends that are with us are supplied. And I say that Duluth people are a jealous and a proud people: jealous in guarding their rights and the reputation of their city; and they are proud to call Duluth their home.”
When the Spanish-American War broke out, Captain Hubert Eva was in charge of Company A. Minnesota’s Third Regiment National Guard became the 14th regiment of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. While many men from St. Louis Country served in the conflict none of Duluth’s companies were sent as a whole. And it was a good thing, too, as Company A was needed right here in Minnesota. The same year the war began, Eva led Company A in their efforts to quell the Leech Lake Indian uprising. Led by Ojibwe Chief Bu-A-May-Geh-Shig, Leech Lake was the last violent conflict with natives in Minnesota—two Ojibwe were wounded; seven soldiers died and nine were wounded. In 1900 Eva and his men put an end to an uprising of 500 to 600 Dakota and Ojibwe at Cass Lake. Eva convinced Indian leaders to end the conflict without a shot being fired.
The Spanish-American War created the Minnesota Naval Militia, and in 1903 Duluth became home to its First and Second Divisions. In the summer the naval Militias trained on the U.S.S. Gopher, an 840-ton steamship armed with three six-pound and two one-pound Hotchkiss rapid fire guns. In the winter, they drilled in the Armory.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t strictly military activity at the Armory. By 1899 the city market operated out of the building during summers, and the building hosted plenty of musical events and other entertainment, including indoor baseball games. The guardsmen also participated in the entertainment. In fact, it had its own band, Duluth’s Third Regiment band, led by Jens Flaaten.
In 1901 Company A began performing a series of exhibitions called “Drills of All Nations,” during which Duluth guardsmen would dress and drill as members of a military unit from another country. The act became so popular the had to reject 13 offers to perform on other stages in the U.S. and Europe—the soldiers had no desire to become traveling performers.
In 1902 Company A created an “Indoor Amateur World’s Fair Exposition,” and even convinced the governor to preside over its opening ceremonies. According to one historian, “sightseers thronged the armory for fourteen days.” Again, Company A received “flattering offers to reproduce these affairs in the leading cities of the United States and abroad.”
In 1908 Company E formed, and space began getting tight at the 1896 Armory. It was originally built to hold Company’s A & C, but now also held company E and both Naval militias as well. Soon the national guard and civic leader were calling for a new Armory and city market that could handle the drilling, firing range, and storage space for the military, a market for Duluth farmers, and a performing space that could help Duluth become a convention center.
In 1906 Duluth civic leaders began calling on the community to build a large auditorium so that Duluth would become more attractive as a convention center. One idea was to put permanent seating on the Armory’s first floor and galleries. By 1909, that had turned into a call for a brand new armory that, like its predecessor, would also be home of the public market and performing space. An editorial in the Duluth News Tribune called the 1896 armory, “An overgrown barn in which no one but a human calliope can be heard. it is neither seated, heated, nor finished, and no public meetings are held there except under compulsion.”
After the usual delays that often hinder the progress of public buildings—including a fight to keep the armory out of Lake Shore Park (today’s Lief Erikson Park)—a new armory was built at 14th Avenue east and London Road. [Note: The 1915 Duluth National Guard Armory will be our Grand Old Building in October] On October 17, 1915, the naval militia hosted the final event at the 1896 Armory, an informal dance and reception.
In 1916 the 1896 armory building was purchased by the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as the Shriners, and the building became the Shrine Auditorium. Over the years the Shriners both used the building and rented it to others. In 1930 it was the also home to the Duluth Automobile Club and several car and truck dealers; later it would house Zenith City Buick.
Over the years the building has been dramatically remodeled, particularly the first floor of the First Street façade. The corner entryway was removed, as well as the four large glass storefronts. The Shriners sold the building and have since moved into a new hall is at 5125 Miller Trunk Highway in a former airplane hanger. Today The 1896 building is for sale by its owner, Youth for Christ, who used the building for its Encounter Youth Center beginning in 2002.
Story by Tony Dierckins; originally posted on Zenith City Online September, 2014.
What do you remember about the old armory/former Shrine Auditorium? Share your memories with our readers in the comments section below. You can catch up on past “Grand Old Buildings” and other articles by Tony Dierckins here.