Duluth City Hall (1929)

This 1928 sketch accompanied a handout published that year, not only touting the new building, but commenting on all the other investments the city had made that year. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Finally, Construction Begins

Shefchik’s design called for a five-story building, including a “ground floor” rather than basement open on the building’s south or First Street side. The third and fourth floors opened to the north to create “light courts,” so the building takes on a U shape above the second floor. Once complete, Duluth’s new city hall would stretch 176.5 feet along First Street and 163 feet along Fourth Avenue East, offering over 2.1 million cubic feet of space. At first it was to be faced in Bedford limestone from Indiana, but that was later changed to granite quarried in Minnesota.

The application to place the Civic Center buildings on the National Register of Historic Places describes the building’s exterior: “The first floor consists of a series of round-arched windows, paired windows above them on the second, then Doric columns elevating four stories to a plain frieze, modest classic cornice, and flat roof, with rusticated stonework the structural norm.” That “plain frieze” was intended by Shefchick to contain an inscribed quotation, just like those on the county courthouse and county jail. For whatever reason, the epitaph was never included. The facade does include several terra cotta lion’s heads, some framed by two fasces—this reflects the courthouse, which includes lion’s head decorations, as well as the 1923 county jail, which is adorned with both lion’s heads and fasces.

City Officials broke ground with a ceremony on March 28, 1927, along with Shefchick and George Lounsberry, who won the building contract. Lounsberry had come full circle: the contractor was a simple carpenter in 1889 when he helped build Duluth’s first city hall. But the big launch was the laying of the cornerstone on July 8. Besides the appropriate officials, the city invited “100 Old Settlers” to be guests at the occasion. Duluth’s masons, who took charge of the event, kicked things off with a parade that had Masons from across the state, the mayor, city commissioners, a squadron of police, and members of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce marching from the Masonic Temple to City Hall.

A crowd of 5,000 was on hand at the construction site to greet them, and WEBC Radio set up a live broadcast of the event. Many speeches were made about the future of Duluth and its glorious past, including one by Frank McElwain, Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, who got some of his Duluth history mixed up. While referring to Kentucky Senator Proctor Knott, whose 1871 congressional oration “The Untold Delights of Duluth” mocked the idea that a city could rise at the head of the Great Lakes, McElwain confuses Knott with Dr. Thomas Foster of the Minnesotian: “When a former senator of Kentucky, years ago, satirically referred to Duluth as the ‘Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas,’ he unwittingly made a prophecy.” Foster had given Duluth that first nickname in 1868, and it was a completely earnest declaration.

The building took about a year to complete, and by September 1, 1928, Mayor Snively had moved into his spacious third-floor suite of office. By October the police department had moved in, but not its jailers: the new city hall did not contain a lock-up; Duluth would use its 1890 jail until the 1940s. Costs of the building came in at just over $1 million—the use of granite instead of limestone had raised the price by about $40,000. A dedication ceremony was set for November 12.

City Hall’s dedication was held in conjunction with Armistice Day observations, so the ceremony began with another parade, led by the Naval Reserve band, that began at Third Avenue East and Superior Street and led to the new city hall. Edward Silberstein presided, Bishop Thomas Welch of the Duluth Catholic Diocese made a statement, and every member of the city council, building committee, the architect, and the contractor, were all introduced and recognized. Otto Swanstrom, chairman of the building committee, formerly presented the building to the city, and Mayor Snively accepted on its behalf. Judge Bert Fesler delivered the dedication address.

And then came the event’s oddest spectacle, a tribute to Duluth’s pioneers. Bernice Brown, “well-known author and poet of this city,” wrote a “Story of Duluth,” which was read by Reverend William J. Barr of the Central Avenue Methodist Church. As Barr read Brown’s story, he was joined on stage by 11 Duluthians dressed as specific Duluth pioneers, such as Duluth’s first mayor, J. B. Culver.

If Bishop McElwain had a little of his Duluth history wrong at the groundbreaking, whoever researched Brown’s tale could have used a refresher course. The story claimed that Duluth’s first city hall in 1871 was a small building “made of boxes and logs” with one window—but Duluth had no city hall until 1889. One of the reenactors portrayed Julia A. Wheeler, “Duluth’s first white child.” Miss Wheeler was born in Oneota in 1856, and she was indeed the first child born there. But the distinction of first child of European descent to be born in what is now Duluth belongs to Mary Wright Ely, born at Fond du Lac in 1836. Another reenactor represented Duluth’s namesake, “Capt. Greysolon Jean du Lhut.” That honor, of course, should have gone to Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut—there never was a “Jean Duluth.

The Frenchman did receive proper honor inside the building itself. As you enter city hall form the 5th Avenue entrance, you also enter the “Hall of Mayors” portrait gallery. Off to one side, in a stairwell, hangs a 5 x 8-foot art glass depiction of du Lhut receiving welcome from a “Chippewa Indian chieftan” after landing at Onigamiinsing—“little portage” on Minnesota Point, once a foot path at the site of today’s Duluth ship canal. The piece, estimated to cost $1,000, was designed by Axel Burgholtz of Duluth’s St. Germain Brothers, who donated and even installed the art glass.

As the home of the mayor, city council, city attorney, city engineers, the police department (until recently), and more, city hall has certainly participated in more than its share of historic moments, too numerous to mention here. The building itself remains relatively unchanged—in fact, many city departments are still operating from the very offices built for them in 1928. In 1961 St. Louis County, who had been housing city prisoners in its 1923 jail since 1953, decided it would no longer serve as the city’s lock-up. That year a $30,000 jail was added to city hall’s third floor, complete with a private elevator to take prisoners to and from police headquarters on the first floor. The police moved out of city hall in 2012 after a new facility was contracted art 2030 North Arlington Avenue. Today the 1928 city hall continues to serve the city’s business and should be sufficient for years to come, as Duluth is still a very long way from reaching a population of 250,000–500,000.

Read more of this story: 1 2