Duluth Central High School (1892)
Lake Avenue & East 2nd Street | Architects: Emmet S. Palmer & Lucien P. Hall | Built: 1892 | Extant
Duluth expanded ambitiously between 1887 and 1895, so much so that by 1890 the eight-room high school it had built four years earlier had already been rendered woefully undersized. School superintendent Robert Denfeld suggested building a new high school on the site of the 1883 Washington Elementary School. The facility would not only be larger—occupying an entire city block and designed to serve 1,500 students—it would also be an architectural masterpiece and include a clock tower, which school board member and grain trader George Spencer declared was one of the city’s great needs.
The new high school meant a great deal to Duluthians. An estimated crowd of over four thousand people showed up to see its cornerstone laid. Many speeches were made, and Denfeld began his by reminding the audience that a city’s educational institutes “are the index of its prosperity and progress,” pointing out that Duluth’s civic leaders were determined that, in terms of its schools, “this city should be second to none in the state.” The Duluth News Tribune commented that “if we would have good citizenship it must be reached through the highest forms of intelligence, and our schools are the lights that guide the steps of the young up the paths which lead to a clearer and a nobler vision.”
The school board again selected architects Palmer and Hall to design the city’s new statement school. They chose to model the building after the 1884 Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which had been designed by none other than H. H. Richardson, the father of the Romanesque Revival movement named for him. Palmer and Hall’s design—likely drawn by draftsman William Hunt—called for a three-story, inverted T-shaped building faced with brownstone from Fond du Lac’s Krause Quarry and other quarries along the Wisconsin South Shore. Students walked up a grand staircase along Second Street to reach an elaborately carved triple-arched entrance beneath a central tower.Duluth’s master stone artisan O. George Thrana’s carvings on the building included a variety of gargoyles poetically described by architectural historian James Allen Scott, who wrote that “cherubs lovingly smile while overhead grotesque animal figures leer their prurient intents.”
Framed by three-story turrets topped with conical caps, the square clock tower stands 230 feet tall with a ten-foot-diameter clock face on all four sides. Its central bell rings on the hour, and, just like the chimes in London’s Palace of Westminster (home to “Big Ben”), smaller bells installed in 1895 play “Westminster Quarters” every fifteen minutes. The sixteen-note melody is based on a phrase from Handel’s Messiah, and in 1945 Central student John Zorbas wrote lyrics for the tune: “Almighty God, Almighty Power, Cherish Our School, Throughout the Hour.” A tradition held for graduating seniors to climb the clock tower and sign their names on its walls. Even those who attended the “new” Central High (1971–2011) maintained the tradition of scribbling their names in Central’s tower.
The school’s basement held the building’s mechanical systems, including coal-fired turbines that supplied electricity; it also contained a classroom for the mechanical arts. The first floor held eleven classrooms, the school board’s offices, and
a library that featured a large brownstone fireplace. Stairways of slate and wrought iron lead to the upper floors. Ten classrooms occupied the second floor, which included a two-story auditorium in the north wing. The ten rooms on the third floor contained laboratories, a drafting room, a gymnasium, a music room, manual training departments (teaching iron- and woodworking), and, in the west wing, a museum containing taxidermic birds, mammals, and reptiles as well as minerals and naturalist curios including a human skeleton. An attached, two-story gymnasium was added to the building’s northeastern portion in 1923 and later a one-story chemistry lab was added west of the auditorium. A garage was later built next to the lab.
In 1898 Duluth acquired a cannon from the Spanish warship Oquendo, captured by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War. Officials planned to install it at the school. But the school board considered the trophy of war an inappropriate addition as it could instill in students “warlike principles,” the Duluth Herald reported. The cannon was nonetheless installed on a pedestal in front of the school’s main entrance, its barrel filled with concrete to render it inoperable. In 1938, pranksters—recognizing that the breech was not sealed—loaded it with a charge of blasting powder, beer bottles, horseshoe calks, iron bars, and stones. The blast broke about fifteen of the school’s windows and drew a crowd of about 2,500 curious Duluthians, but injured no one. The cannon was finally removed in 1942 and is thought to have been sold as scrap to support the war effort.
Old Central has seen many renovations and upgrades over the years, but its exterior still looks much as it did in 1892. The building ceased operating as a high school in 1971 when the school board built a new Central High School and was afterward used for the district’s administrative offices and for other educational purposes. It was featured in the 1994 Disney movie Iron Will as a stand-in for Winnipeg City Hall. In 2004 the 1892 Duluth High School was officially renamed Historic Old Central High School. Developer Saturday Properties purchased the school in 2021 and intends to convert the building into apartments.