Duluth’s Most Endangered Buildings

In light of May’s status as “Preservation Month,” we want to introduce you to some Duluth buildings whose futures are currently in jeopardy: Minnesota Point Lighthouse ruins, the upper 100 block of West 4th Street, the Temple Opera Block, the Carter Hotel, and St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

Minnesota Point Lighthouse Ruins (1858)  |  Southern End of Minnesota Point.

Ruins of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse, photographed in 2009 by Dennis O’Hara.

If you hike the Minnesota Point Hiking Trail behind Sky Harbor Airport, you will eventually encounter a roughly 30-foot-tall crumbling tower of red brick and limestone surrounded by a dilapidated chain-link fence. This is what remains of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse, the first lighthouse built at the Head of the Lakes.

The light was commissioned after the Soo Locks on the St. Mary’s River opened in 1855, allowing larger vessels to enter Lake Superior, which essentially opened shipping traffic from New York to the Head of the Lakes. It marked the Superior Entry, the natural divide between Minnesota and Wisconsin Points. In 1858 German stonemason Adam Dopp used red Ohio brick to construct the tower and a keeper’s home nearby, later coating the tower with a limestone whitewash. He centered the lighthouse atop mile marker zero, set there by George Stuntz a few years earlier and used for all surveys mapping Lake Superior and what is now the Duluth-Superior Harbor

Besides its distinction as the first Lake Superior lighthouse and its significant location, the lighthouse symbolically represents the shift from Superior to Duluth as the center of trade at the Head of the Lakes. Because traffic through the Superior Entry became so rare after the ship canal was dug, the federal government shut down the lighthouse in 1885—and by that time the shifting sands of the point had moved the entry significantly south of the lighthouse (today it is about a half mile away). (Read a more complete history of the Minnesota Point Light here.)

Current Condition: Unstable. Photographs of the lighthouse ruins taken at the turn of the last century show it has lost much of its height since that time, and a great deal of the protective limestone has fallen off. The ruins and their surrounding are overgrown with vegetation, and the fence intended to protect it has been damaged by vandals. The structure needs to be stabilized, and the surrounding area requires regular maintenance. (The site would also benefit from a historical marker to tell park visitors what the structure once was, and what still lies at its center: mile marker zero, the symbolic birthplace of Duluth.)

Chances for survival: Questionable. After nearly 130 years of neglect, this building is, remarkably, still standing—a testament to the masonry skills of Adam Dopp. But if left untended it will eventually collapse. While it was placed on the National Register of Historic Building in 1974, to our knowledge there is no group actively working to preserve the ruins. According to Duluth Parks Division Manager Kathy Bergen, since the ruins are technically on federal land (the U.S. Government commissioned the light and oversaw its operation), the city has no plans to bolster the ruins or maintain the surrounding area.

Upper 100 Block of West 4th Street

The buildings at 101–103 W. 4th St. (Photo: Deb Kellner)

This isn’t one building but a group of structures in the Central Hillside threatened with demolition to make room for the Hillside Apartment Complex. The buildings include houses at 113 and 117 W. 4th St., apartment buildings at 407 N. 1st Ave. W. and 101–103 W. 4th St. (known at one time as the “Union Block,”), and another house at 127 W. 4th St.

According to Historic Resource Inventories completed by Deb Kellner in 2011, most of these buildings were constructed in the 1890s. The apartment buildings at 127 W. 4th St. and 407 N. 1st Ave. W. are classic Richardsonian Romanesque structures from the late Victorian period, and the house at 127 W. 4th St., with its mansard roof and inset gable dormers, is an example of French Second Empire architecture. (The houses on 4th St. were not part of the survey.)

The Hillside Apartments are a $12 million affordable housing project, and the neighborhood has put forth no organized effort to stop the proposed changes to their community. The neighborhood needs more low-income housing, and some of the buildings coming down have contributed to the neighborhood’s crime problems in recent years, including a shooting in 2008 that left one person dead and a notorious “candy” store that was a front for a drug dealer. All the buildings were acquired by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority as of September 11, 2012.

Current Condition: Varied. The 2011 survey describes the condition of the house at 127 W. 4th St. as “fair.” Its roof, porch, and siding show “signs of neglect,” but it still retains its “integrity of design…in association with historic context.” The survey calls the Union Block’s condition “poor” and notes that the building displays a “lack of maintenance [and] significant signs of disrepair” and that “radical alterations” have essentially destroyed the integrity of its front façade. The apartment at 407 N. 1st Ave. W. is considered by Kellner to be in “good condition showing minimal signs of neglect” with its historic and architectural integrity intact. Ultimately the survey found that none of these buildings meet the criteria to be “considered eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Chances for Survival: None. While the State Office of Historic Preservation (SHPO) did not feel all of the 2011 survey’s findings were correct, it agreed that the buildings were not eligible for the National Register—but reluctantly so with the apartment at 407 N. 1st, which the organization considers “an excellent example of the multi-family dwellings constructed for workers in Duluth in the late 1800s and early 1900s.” The Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission (DHPC) did consider providing protection for the buildings by designating them Landmark structures. According to DHPC president David Woodward, the group opposed the buildings’ demolition “on the grounds that they make up a significant part of that neighborhood and would change the character of the neighborhood.” The group discussed nominating some of the structures for landmark status, but at that time the city prohibited the group from nominating a building without the landowner’s consent. There has been no further effort to save the buildings. Once the funding for the apartment complex is secure, the buildings will come down; in fact, our delayed spring may be the only reason they remain standing.

Temple Opera Block (1889) | 201–205 East Superior Street

The Temple Opera Block, photographed in 2010. (Image: Perfect Duluth Day)

The Temple Opera Block didn’t make this list because it is threatened with demolition but, ironically, because of a renovation project that many people in Duluth feel is long overdue: the restoration of the NorShor Theatre.

Duluth’s Masons built the Temple Opera Block in 1889, so named because the Temple Opera House, which they also built, stood just up the avenue where the 1910 Orpheum Theatre now stands (the Temple Opera House burned in 1895). When first built the building stood six stories high and was capped with a Moorish dome. The top two floors and dome were removed in 1942 because, some theorized, the dome blocked the tower of the new NorShor Theatre next door; the demolition permit did not state a reason for the dramatic alteration. (Read a more complete history of the building here.)

The Temple Opera Block is threatened by the extension of Duluth’s Skywalk system. The building is literally and figuratively tied to the NorShor Theatre. The 1941 Art Deco movie house is about to go through a much-welcomed renovation; plans suggest a refurbishment as near to its original splendor as can be achieved. Renovations currently include a skywalk from the back of Greysolon Plaza (the historic Hotel Duluth) to the back of the NorShor, where an elevator will take patrons to the theatre lobby.

The city has binding agreements with developers to extend the skywalk system from Essentia Health to the Technology Building at Superior St. and Lake Ave. According to a March 1, 2013, article by the Duluth News Tribune’s Peter Passi, plans “called for the skywalk to run through the Norshor Theatre property and adjoining Temple Opera Building and then west across 2nd Ave. E. into the Fond-du-Luth Casino.”  This would severely compromise the integrity of the Temple Opera Block’s 2nd Ave. façade. The skywalk would also require passage through the building itself, dramatically altering its interior, which is still adorned with elaborate woodwork and glass-paneled doors topped with transoms, just as it was when the second and third floors served as Duluth’s first public library.

Current Condition: Excellent. Despite losing its top floors and Moorish dome back in 1942, the building is in remarkable shape, and the 2nd Ave. E. and Superior St. façades remain in their original 1889 glory. The building continues to vitally serve the community: its first floor still serves as a retail space—its builders’ original intent—and the second and third floors contain offices for a variety of professionals.

Chances for survival: For the building, good; for its architectural integrity, complicated. The Temple is a Duluth Landmark building, meaning its owner must follow specific guidelines for any work on the building’s exterior. As a landmark building, the DHPC, which oversees renovations to these properties, would be compelled to preserve the building’s integrity. But the building is owned by the city of Duluth, and a few years back Duluth’s City Council voted to ignore the recommendations of the DHPC to allow historically inappropriate windows in the 1928 City Hall, also a Duluth Landmark building owned by the city. So chances are if the city wants to put a skywalk through the Temple Opera Block, it will, no matter the arguments put forth by the DHPC. But the building is also a contributing structure to the Downtown Historic District, and the city is currently trying to save the Carter Hotel (see below), which is also part of the District but has no Landmark protection. It would be difficult for the city to fight to save the Carter and then allow a skywalk through the Temple Opera Block and not appear hypocritical—the city would be breaking its own law. Since the skywalk would lead west to the Fond-du-Luth Casino, the city’s ongoing legal battle with the Fond du Lac band has already interfered with plans. According to the Duluth News Tribune, “while the band previously expressed interest in having the skywalk run through its property, [Assistant City Attorney Bob] Asleson said any such talks ‘have been subsumed by the revenue-sharing issue.’”

Chris Eng, Duluth’s director of business and economic development, has suggested an alternative that would “jog from the Temple Opera Building, across Superior St. and then westward.” In addition to the Temple Opera Block, that idea would have the skywalk pass through two other historic buildings that contribute to the Downtown Historic District, including Duluth’s 1889 City Hall, which also has Landmark protection. Several years ago the city refused to allow the building’s owners to install vinyl windows because it is a Landmark building; so, yet again, putting a skywalk through Old City Hall would not only be hypocritical and against the law, it would would severely devalue the multi-million dollar investment the owners made converting the building into Tycoons Alehouse.

The Carter Hotel, photographed in February, 2013. (Image: X-Comm)

The Carter Hotel (1929) | 17–25 North 2nd Avenue East
Built as a modest residential hotel in 1929, the Carter Hotel served as a home for low-income residents of downtown until 2010, but even the most ardent preservationist would have a tough time calling the Carter historically significant. But it is a contributing building to Duluth’s Downtown Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Read an architectural description of the Carter here.)

The Fond du Lac band purchased the Carter in 2010, stating at first that they were going to expand casino operations into the building. But after the city essentially took away the band’s contract to operate the adjacent, city-owned parking ramp, it changed its position: the Carter would be demolished to make room for surface parking. More recently the band said it “has no immediate plans for the property but does intend to invest and redevelop it in the near future.” Surprisingly, Duluth assistant city attorney Alice Luterman argued to save the Carter because of its status as a contributing building to the Duluth Downtown Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places—a complete reversal of the city’s stance when the Costello Building, also part of the district and much more historically significant than the Carter, was threatened with demolition. The city allowed the Costello to come down.

Because of the Carter’s status, the burden of proof is placed on its owner to justify its demolition. According to the State Historic Preservation Office, the band must “demonstrate that the building is beyond salvation and there is no feasible economic alternative” to demolition. The band’s efforts to prove the building should come down have included what could be described as acts of sabotage. In 2012 it removed most of the building’s roof, allowing rain and snow to enter. The band claims the roof was compromised in order to remove asbestos, but Duluth Preservation Alliance president Glen Filipovich explained to the Duluth News Tribune that the chances of the roof containing asbestos were highly unlikely: a new roof covered with a single-ply rubber membrane was installed in 1997, and the federal government banned the use of asbestos in building materials in 1989. The band has essentially attempted to destroy the building through a method known to preservationists as “demolition by neglect.

Current Condition: Poor. As stated earlier, the building has no roof. In early April 2013, an inspection by an SHPO representative found the hallways coated with up to two inches of ice. Earlier inspections had detected mold. Later that month the Duluth News Tribune reported that city officials sent a letter to the band informing them that the Carter was in “an unsafe and unsanitary condition…. [Water] has infiltrated the brick exterior walls, including parapets, causing deterioration of the brick, which can lead to spalling [flaking] and masonry falling onto the public way.” The band has since applied for permits to repair the roof and clean up the interior, as the letter demanded. Even if the damage is repaired, the interior is likely already a lost cause, and a complete gutting would be required for renovation.

Chances for Survival: Surprisingly promising. At first, willful neglect and legal wrangling appeared to have worked for the band. In April 2012 District Court Judge Mark Munger declared the legal battle over expanding tribal lands within Duluth—which is at the core of the battle over the Carter—must be considered by a Federal Court. In February 2013 the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs concluded that the Carter Hotel building in downtown Duluth should come down. The city appealed, and last month the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court. The court’s opinion, according to city attorney Gunnar Johnson, states that Duluth is “entitled to bring a motion…for a temporary injunction.” At the very least, the Carter won’t be coming down soon. The exterior is still sound, and that’s the main concern of local preservationists and SHPO, which is working with the city to help save the building.

St. Peter’s Church (1926) | 818 West 3rd Street

St. Peter’s Church. (Image Robin Mainella)

In 1905 a group of southern Italian immigrants living near Point of Rocks purchased St. Jean-Baptiste Church because they had no church of their own: at the time, southern Italians weren’t welcomed by the American Catholic Church. They renamed the simple wooden church St. Peter’s and it became the heart of Duluth’s “Little Italy.” By 1925 it was too small. The next year the congregation, which by then also included northern Italians, built a Romanesque-Gothic church—designed by parishioner Peter Summers, son of Duluth’s first Italian immigrants—at  818 W. 3rd St. Among the parishioners were highly-skilled stone masons from northern Italy. These artisans volunteered to build the church out of blue, yellow, and gray native stone harvested from Duluth’s hillside near Twin Ponds. It became the cultural center of Duluth’s Italian-American community for the next 75 years. (More on the history of St. Peter’s here.)

After two and more generations of assimilation, Duluth’s ethnically divided neighborhoods had become diversified, which also had an affect on parishes built to serve specific ethnic groups. By the 1980s, most of Duluth’s ethnic parishes had dissolved or merged together. St. Peter’s held on until 2010. At the time only 50 people attended Sunday Mass each week, and the overall congregation had become so small it was merged with that of St. Mary Star of the Sea. The building was closed and deconsecrated. Its religious appointments have been given to other parishes throughout the Diocese of Duluth. Diocese spokesman Kyle Eller said that the congregation merger means that the St. Peter’s “belongs to that parish” of St. Mary Star of the Sea.

After the building closed, the Italian American Club of Duluth—which used the church as its headquarters—briefly considered purchasing the building. Club member Jim Carroll, grandson of architect Peter Summers, told Zenith City Online that in 2010 he personally sent a certified letter to the diocese offering to buy the church, and that the diocese wrote back saying they would consider his proposal. Two months later Carroll made another offer via certified mail, twice that of his original; he said he “never heard back” from the diocese. According to Father John Petrich, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea, no one has ever made an offer on the building, and he has never received the diocese’s permission to list it for sale as “bishops don’t like to retask church buildings.” St. Peter’s has no Landmark protection. In 2012 the DHPC approached the diocese and suggested that the historic church should be made a Landmark property, which would protect it from demolition. According to DHPC president David Woodward, the church responded by threatening to sue not only the city and the DHPC, but the volunteer citizen Chair of the DHPC as well. The building now stands empty and, according to Father Petrich, it hasn’t been heated since October 2012.

Current Condition: Poor. Father Petrich told Zenith City Online that St. Peter’s is “falling down.” The roof leaks near the bell tower, and the building itself has “shifted four inches.” Plaster is coming off in sheets, he reports, and one corner of the building is black with mold. This past year a water main broke on 3rd St., flooding the building’s subbasement. Repair costs, according to Petrich, are estimated at over $500,000; the building has been assessed at $300,000.

Chances for Survival: Slim to None. While the DHPC is pursuing the building’s nomination for landmark protection and has the support of the State Historic Preservation Office, Woodward said he “doubt[s] it would get through city council.” And by all indications the Church would work fiercely to see the nomination fail. In April Father Petrich told Zenith City Online that the building would come down “within the next year or year and a half,” because “the property has more value than the building” and therefore will be easier to sell.

Other Buildings

Other historic buildings in Duluth are in jeopardy as well, including the Northwestern Bell Building at 1804 E. 1st St. and a row of townhouses on the lower side of 1100 block of E. 2nd St. that may fall victim to the further expansion of St. Luke’s Hospital. A proposed firehall at the corner of Woodland Ave. and Snively Rd. could involve the demolition of one or more historic homes. In April the right-field wall of  historic Wade Stadium gave way to the long winter’s freeze-and-thaw cycles, but efforts by local elected officials indicate that the building’s future is not in immediate jeopardy. Zenith City Online will bring you more about these buildings as plans for their futures unfold.