Duluth Board of Trade (1895)

The 1895 Duluth Board of Trade Building ca. 1895, photographer unknown. [Image: Minnesota Historical Society]

301–307 West First Street | Architects: Traphagen &  Fitzpatrick | b. 1895 | Extant

While the Duluth Board of Trade had built itself a handsome headquarters in 1885, by the early 1890s the flourishing grain trade was putting stress on the structure, as tenants were running out of room. In 1893 the organization asked Traphagen & Fitzpatrick to design them a new, larger building at the northwest corner of Third Avenue East and First Street. But following the Financial Panic of 1893, construction was delayed indefinitely. The project was placed back on the front burner on February 12, 1894—the day after the 1885 Board of Trade Building came crashing down in flames.

The Board of Trade wasted no time, and less than five month’s later the new building’s cornerstone was laid “with all the circumstance incident to the Masonic ritual.” The day’s events started at three p.m. with horse-drawn carriages bringing dignitaries to the Masonic Temple. At four p.m. a procession led by Harris’s Military Band headed toward the construction zone. It including two platoons of police officers, a detail from the fire department, two companies of the Duluth militia, representatives from local labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce, city officials, another band, and of course members of the Board of Trade, master Masons, and the Knights Templar. In a speech, Mayor Ray T. Lewis exclaimed, “This day will soon be past but the work inaugurated will go on till it results in a beautiful building of which Duluth can be proud.”

That building, a Renaissance Revival structure in the “Palazzo style,” stands seven stories tall over First Street. Its first three stories are faced in red brownstone quarried at Portage Lake on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The central, two-story First Street entry features a large recessed Roman arch surrounded by what the Duluth News Tribune called “the most delicate of lace work carved in solid stone” by master stone carver George Thrana. The third-floor windows are topped with more Roman arches and upon the frieze between the windows and the main entrance Thrana carved the words “Board of Trade” and flanked them with torches. The newspaper described floors four through seven as “void of ornament,” missing the tall, Roman-arch topped windows within the central pier and some terra-cotta trimming around the light buff brick that faces those floors. But it did describe the cornice justly as “quite ornate, large and impressive and serves as a fitting capping to so handsome a pile.” The paper went on to call the building “one of Duluth’s architectural ornaments” and a “monument to the enterprise and activity of Duluth’s most flourishing commercial organization.”

Members of the Duluth Board of Trade pose for photographer Carl Thiel on the original second-level trading floor of the second Board of Trade Building in 1895. The gentleman sitting in the front row in the third seat from the right is Julius Barnes. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

The First Street entry originally lead to a spacious vestibule with a mosaic marble floor and a vaulted ceiling covered, like the walls, in blocks of red marble. A grand staircase led to the second floor’s board room and trading floor, which was a sixty-foot-square room positioned at the building’s northwest corner and covered in a dome of glass sixty feet above the floor. The newspaper pointed out that the the dome, “a network of delicate steel ribs and the clearest crystal,” seemed suspended in air, with “no columns nor other evident supports.” The third floor was mostly a gallery surrounding the board room so that spectators could have an unobstructed view of the trading going on below. Its balcony was supported by “two magnificent Corinthian columns symbolic of agriculture.” Office suites filled the fourth through seventh floors and were leased before the building was even constructed. The Board even provided the furniture, all designed by Traphagen & Fitzpatrick in quarter-sawn white oak to match the building’s interior trim.

In 1907 the Board of Trade hired Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to design an addition to the building’s northwest portion. The trading floor was dismantled, and the steel-and-glass dome ended up in St. Paul as part of the conservatory at the city’s Como Zoo. The 1895 design was replicated to the seventh floor, and then a two-story-tall eighth floor was added atop the addition to contain the new trading floor. Large Roman-arch windows along the northern façade flooded the room with light. The new space included a bank of eighteen telephone booths for traders’ use. The second and third floors were converted to office space.

The 1908 trading floor on the Board of Trade building’s eighth level photographed in 1953. When the building was constructed, women weren’t allowed on the trading floor. By the 1950s, as this photo attests, women were employed to record transactions. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

In 1948, fire destroyed the Rudolph’s Furniture building directly across First Street from the Board of Trade. The intense blaze required every Duluth firefighter to extinguish, and it caused damage to surrounding buildings. Insurance companies estimated the Board of Trade’s losses at several hundred thousand dollars, and its ornate cornice had to be removed following the blaze. It was never replaced. By then the Board of Trade was losing its significance and had been since the Great Depression began. As more grain traders moved out, other professionals began occupying offices. By the mid 1960s Chicago and Minneapolis were handling nearly all of the grain trading in the Midwest, and Duluth’s grain exchange made its last transaction in 1966.

The building thereafter continued to house a variety of businesses, including longtime retail tenants the Exchange Bakery (1988 to 2019) and the Board of Trade Barber Shop, now known as Board of Trade Hair Care. The Minnesota Ballet moved into the former trading floor in 1997, and the space underwent a renovation and restoration; the phone booths became costume storage. In 2020, two years after the ballet moved out, the building’s third and fourth floors were converted to eighty-four apartments called the Historic Board of Trade Lofts.