The Corps of Engineers Building
Address: 600 South Lake Avenue
Architects: William T. Bray and Wallace Wellbanks
Built: 1906 | Extant
When the federal government took over the ship canal, it also acquired two small strips of land on either side of the waterway. They dubbed the property “Canal Park” but didn’t do anything to make it very park-like. Then in 1902, with work on the new ship canal piers complete, the government decided to spend $30,000 on park improvements (“concrete walks, grass plots, and trees”) and a spanking-new Neoclassical Revival office building for the Corps of Engineers, designed by federal architect Wallace Wellbanks along with Duluth architect W. T. Bray. The building also ended talks of moving the Corps’ Lake Superior headquarters to Houghton or Marquette on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The three-story building, made of pressed brick with Bedford stone trim, include Doric elements of the Neoclassical school. The building site was raised two feet and a three-foot concrete seawall was added along the pier-side of the building to prevent flooding when storms washed water over the canal’s piers. The building has few lavish flourishes, but its doors, according to newspaper reports in 1906, are of “of English, American and Flemish oak or mahogany and the workmanship is artistic.”
At the time, Duluth’s Corps of Engineer’s building was the only facility of its kind in the United Sates. Besides offices, it held facilities for testing concrete and other materials the engineers used in marine construction project such as the piers along the Duluth Ship Canal. It also contained a darkroom for processing photographs and blueprints. The building actually cost $25,00 to complete and was said to be “beyond a doubt the best lighted building in Duluth,” a feat accomplished with large windows “in the most scientific arrangement” so that “there is hardly a shadow in any of the rooms and not a dark corner.”
In 1971 the park received an $82,000 facelift thanks in part to Jeno’s, Inc., which purchased a portion of the park to create more employee parking. The park improved its own parking, fixed drainage issues, created a circular drive to ease traffic, added additional green spaces, planted more trees, and improved the lighting to make the area more hospitable to visitors.
The park became even more of a tourist destination in 1973 with the opening of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, which later connected directly to the Corps of Engineers Building.
Oddly enough the museum developed out of a need for restroom facilities. Back in the late 1960s, the bridge’s “comfort stations”—bathrooms the Corps of Engineers insisted be installed in the base of the bridge’s approaches in 1929—had become so decrepit that the city removed them, turning the space into storage. Soon afterward, however, desperate tourists began relieving themselves in and around the park. So the Corps of Engineers decided to build restroom facilities adjacent to the Corps building. The original plans for the project demonstrated that the height of the addition didn’t complement the existing structure, so another level was added. Someone then suggested that the extra space could house an exhibit or two about Lake Superior’s shipping history, which in turn sparked more ambitious ideas. By the time the building was completed in 1973, what had started as a simple bathroom addition had become the Canal Park Marine Museum.
The museum, designed by architects Aguar, Jrying, Whiteman & Moser to resemble a ship’s bridge, tells the history of shipping on Lake Superior through fascinating exhibits that range from actual artifacts of maritime history to recreations of sailors’ quarters aboard ore boats to scale models of a variety of vessels that once sailed the lake. C. Patrick Labadie served as the museum’s first curator; at this writing, Thomas Holden mans the wheel of what has been renamed the “Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.” By the time the aerial bridge celebrated its one hundredth year in 2005, more than 12 million people had visited the museum.