Jefferson Elementary

Jefferson Elementary School ‘s Second Street façade ca. 1895, photographer unknown. [Image: Herb Dillon]

916 East Third Street | McMillan & Radcliffe, Architects | Built: 1893 | Closed: 1984

Duluth’s first school wasn’t built in Duluth, but just outside its borders within the town of Portland, which occupied much of today’s east hillside. A one-room building on Superior Street east of Fourth Avenue East held classes from 1863 to 1866, when the one-story, two-room wood-frame Portland school was constructed between Third and Fourth Avenues East, north of the alley between Superior and First Streets. Portland’s streets were platted in 1856 along the cardinal compass points, placing them at a 45 degree angle from Duluth’s streets. When Portland joined the City of Duluth in 1870, all but one of Portland’s streets—Washington Avenue—were realigned with Duluth’s grid, and the school sat at an angle alongside buildings constructed after 1870. The building also served as a meeting place for various Duluth organizations, including churches, before they had their own facilities.

The Portland school was replaced when Jefferson Elementary opened between Ninth and Tenth Avenues East and Second and Third Streets in 1883. The two-story building held six rooms on each floor, four of them classrooms. Thanks to Duluth’s 1880s population boom, by 1890 it was overcrowded. The construction of Endion Elementary removed some pressure until a new Jefferson Elementary was built on the same site beginning in 1892.

The Duluth Daily News described the two-and-a-half-story school building as Italian Renaissance Revival. Faced with cream-colored brick and trimmed in red sandstone, Jefferson Elementary stands adorned with Roman-arch windows and heavy corner quoins along the second level while rusticated stone frames rectangular windows along the first. The Third Street façade features a single, central gable beneath which three large, ornately-carved arches sit over windows on the second level. This motif is reflected on the first level with three large arched entryways. The building’s other three sides each feature two gabled wings. Along the Second Street façade, a grand stairway leads to a central entrance portico framed by Ionic columns.

The school’s first and second floors each originally held eight classrooms as well as offices for the principal (first) and
vice principal (second) that provided each administrator with “commanding full views of the corridors.” The second floor also contained a library. The attic held an exercise room and gymnasium, and four more classrooms occupied the basement. The school board considered Jefferson a model for future Duluth schools. The building’s architect, Edwin Radcliffe, told the Duluth Daily News that he had recently visited many major cities between Duluth and Boston and noted “there is not a city in the country of the size of Duluth which can compare with it in the character of its school buildings either in substantiability [sic] or in hygienic properties.”
After closing in the mid-1980s, the school was converted into the Jefferson Square Apartments.

Jefferson Elementary School. (Image: Zenith City Press)