Banning Block

The Banning Block photographed ca. 1905 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

129–131 West Superior Street | Architect: J. C. Farrand | Built: 1872 | Lost: 1960

The Banning Block was first called the Banning-Branch Block for its financiers, St. Paulites William Branch and William Banning, who the Duluth Minnesotian described as “staunch friends of Duluth.” Banning organized the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad in the 1860s and Branch served as its first director. Both had already constructed other buildings in Duluth, Banning a modest wooden affair at the southeast corner of Superior Street and First Avenue East in 1870, and Branch the eponymously named Branch’s Hall, the city’s first brick building.

The Minnesotian reported in May 1872 that construction on the new building at the northwest corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue East would begin shortly, as stone contractor Thomas Harvey had been hired to face a three-story building in chocolate-brown sandstone from Chamber’s Quarry in Fond du Lac, rusticated stone along the Superior Street façade, and rough-hewn block along the avenue. The building included Neoclassical elements such as flared pointed-pediment window hoods supported by corbels, and doubled corbels also held up an iron cornice crowned with an iron pediment bearing the building’s name and the year it was built. The first floor held two Superior Street retail storefronts, and the second was outfitted for offices. The third floor featured a twenty-two-foot-tall ceiling and was to be used as a public hall or opera house, with its own entrance along Second Avenue East. It was soon referred to as the Banning & Branch Opera House.

The brownstone arrived in June and masons went to work, but stopped in late September after Harvey skipped town with over $8,000, much of it owed to banks and men on his firm’s construction payroll. He was never seen again, and work resumed in October, but construction of the third floor was put on hold. The building was otherwise complete by January 1873, when Branch died. Banning tried to purchase Branch’s half from his estate, but had difficulties. The building wound up being auctioned off at a “referee’s sale” in October 1873; Banning submitted the winning bid. The next year he announced he would not include a third floor.

The building’s early tenants included the civil engineering firm of Franklin & Bailey and from 1873 until 1883 one of
its second floor offices served as the District Court of Judge Ozora P. Stearns. Countless retail businesses and firms occupied the building for nearly ninety years, including a Walgreens drug store from 1931 until the building was demolished in 1960. North Shore Bank now occupies its site.