Duluth Denfeld High School

4405 West 4th Street | Abraham Holstead & William J. Sullivan, Architects | Built: 1926 | Extant

West Duluth’s first high school, Duluth Industrial High School, was housed inside Irving Elementary from 1905 to 1913. Most West Duluthians called the school “Irving High School” or “West Duluth High School.” In 1915 the first Robert E. Denfeld High School was built at 725 Central Avenue North, next to Ely Elementary, serving 150 students. By 1925 over 800 students were crammed into the first Denfeld. When a new Robert E. Denfeld High School opened in 1926, old Denfeld was rechristened West Junior High.

The high school’s namesake, Robert E. Denfeld, served as the superintendent of Duluth schools from 1886 until 1916. Under Denfeld, Duluth’s public schools increased in number from seven to thirty-four, and he created a two-year teacher training program that became the Duluth Normal School, now the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Denfeld was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1854 and educated at Amherst College from which he received a masters in 1878. After working as a principal at two high schools, he attended the Boston University Law school, passing the bar exam in 1882. During his thirty-year career in Duluth, Denfeld also served as the secretary of the National Education Association and president of the Minnesota State School Board. When he retired in 1916, the Duluth News Tribune wrote that “Denfeld is exceedingly popular. He has a winning personality; an endless fun of good humor which has sustained him through the years of financial depression in the schools, and a vigor that is infectious.” Denfeld wasn’t done with education. He took over as superintendent of the Aurora School District in 1917 after its superintendent was drafted for duty in the war in Europe and later did field work for the Bureau of Education. And he never stopped lecturing, either about education or Freemasonry: Denfeld was also one of Duluth’s top Masons and gave lectures on the organization until his death in 1921.

Architects Abraham Holstead and William J. Sullivan designed the new high school in the Collegiate Gothic style, which combines English Tudor and Gothic elements, The style is commonly found in schools such as England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities. Faced in red brick with limestone trim, the building—designed to accommodate 2,500 students—was constructed in the shape of an H. The horizontal bar of the H runs north and south. The southern leg of the H contains a gymnasium to the west and an auditorium to the east. The northern leg originally contained a manual training section (east) and science section (west).

The school was designed to inspire and features George Thrana carvings and windows framed in rectangles as well as several different styles of arches, including Roman, Gothic, and segmental. The building’s 120-foot clock tower—its most iconic feature—features eight buttresses. They are named, as the Duluth Herald reported in 1926, for the “eight types of human beings which support the human kingdom, namely, master, ruler, philanthropist, philosopher, magician, scientist, devote, and artist.” Their vertical lines “denote the aspirational tendency of the sincere student after truth and it has been clothed in beauty as a fitting expression of that truth.” The clock’s face was designed by Central High teacher Carl Shroer and fabricated by Denfeld students using cast aluminum provided by Duluth Brass Works, which also made the tower’s pyramidal cap.

Below the tower, and above the school’s main entrance, a Latin motto declares “A Clean Life, an Open Mind, a Pure Heart, an Eager Intellect, a Brotherliness for All.” Other entryway adornments include five panels “symbolic of the powers latent in man” and the school’s coat of arms along with the Latin motto “Gentle in manner, resolute in deed.” Above that statement is a frieze containing Robert Denfeld’s initials, a dolphin-and-anchor motif “to remind us of [the school’s] dignity,” and two roses to “denote the love in which the city holds the name of the late superintendent of schools.”

More inspirational symbolic art can be found throughout the school’s exterior and interior, all intended to be “a great source of instruction and amusement to the student body, as they embody the deepest religious, philosophic and scientific truths…given to the human family.” Despite all the art, Denfeld High’s most impressive interior element is its two-thousand-seat auditorium, whose sixty-foot-wide stage could accommodate two hundred performers. The auditorium was built with its own entrance so it could be used for public performances as well. Over the years it has hosted the likes of Liberace, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Cash—and even Richard Nixon. In 2006 the auditorium underwent a major renovation.

Denfeld’s sports teams proudly wear maroon and gold and are called the Hunters for longtime Denfeld teacher, coach, and athletic director Walter Hunting. The name caught on in the early 1930s, when Denfeld’s football team, under coach Hunting, began dominating the gridiron. He also coached championship baseball, basketball, and golf teams. A tribute to Hunting on his 1952 retirement reflected the community’s respect for him: “It isn’t the championships won that make Walt Hunting great. The boys who have played for him learned more than a game. They learned honesty, integrity and sportsmanship. Nobody could possibly be associated with Walt Hunting and not be better for it because he symbolizes everything great about America.”

Since the school first opened in 1926, Duluthians living west of Point of Rock have taken great pride in Denfeld High School, which has a very active alumni association. In 1976 the school held an all-class reunion. The Duluth News Tribune reported that over thirteen thousand people from all fifty states and twenty-six countries attended, including member from the class of 1909. As a result of the Duluth School Board’s Long Range Facilities Plan—aka the Red Plan—Denfeld was enlarged in 2011. Unfortunately, the architects did not concern themselves in making the addition congruent with the 1926 design, and and it seems to have been slapped on with little thought at all to the school’s existing architecture. The building has lost its distinctive H shape and much of the lower portion of its iconic tower is no longer visible. Nevertheless, Hunter pride remains strong.

Postcard, date unknown, showing an aerial view of Denfeld High School’s original “H” shape. (Image: Zenith City Press)