Northern Bible Society Building

The Northern Bible Society Building, photographed in 1965 by Clarence F. Sager. [Image: Jeff Lemke]

715 West Superior Street | Architect Unknown | b. 1932 | Extant

Christian missionary Reverend Henry E. Ramseyer came to Duluth in 1899 to pastor men working in lumber camps, and seven years later found himself the superintendent of Duluth’s Bethel Society. In 1918, he left the Bethel and, along with other area ministers, organized the Northern Bible Society. The group, according to its own literature, distributed bibles in a variety of languages to “isolated and religiously neglected homes…sailors on the lakes…men in Government camps…cheap boarding houses…logging camps…[and] Indian children in Government schools.” One of their first missions was to r place the family bibles of people who had lost their homes in the 1918 Cloquet Fire. Meanwhile, throughout his career Ramseyer had been amassing a collection of rare bibles. The society moved into a modest building at 715 West Superior Street and began their mission, eventually buying the building.
In 1932 Ramseyer had the society’s home demolished to make way for a new building.

Its unknown architect chose an Art Deco design for the two-story structure, facing it in cream-colored brick. Its Superior Street façade featured four distinct bays separated by brick piers that rise above the roofline. Indeed, the vbeuaty of the “Bible House Building: as many called it, is encased in its brickwork, which alternates
between protruding and recessed coursework to achieve decorative effects, including the appearance of crosses within the second-floor windows. The brickwork rose above the easternmost bay to create support for another brick cross that crowned the building. Meanwhile, protruding bricks along the top left corner of its eastern façade formed yet another cross.

The Society’s business was conducted on the first floor while the second floor housed Ramseyer’s growing bible collection which, according to journalist Mary Morse, later became a popular attraction. Ramseyer’s daughter Pauline explained to researcher Gertrude Anderson in 1935 that its walls were adorned with murals painted by Duluthian Axel E. Schar representing “the historical development of civilizations, particularly the religious contribution to it: An early American School house, a flat-roofed Oriental [sic] home; and two churches, one surmounted by a cross and the other with a representation of the Jewish Flag.”

The collection eventually contained over 2,750 translations of the Old and New Testaments as well as other religious documents and artifacts, published in “550 languages and sixty different alphabets and phonetic scripts,” including its prized first edition of the 1611 King James Bible; its earliest book dates back to ad 490. The collection includes examples of bibles distributed by the society in Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Czech, Serbian, Ukranian, and other languages, showing the variety of Duluth’s immigrant population in the 1920s. It also contains examples of the Native American language bibles the society distributed.

Ramseyer died in 1946, after which his daughters Pauline and Esther took over care of his collection and continued to expand it. It was donated to the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1979 and is housed within its Katherine A. Martin Library. Attorneys Mundt & Hall—later Mundt & Associates—moved into the building in 1980. Owner Daniel Mundt removed the brickwork above the roofline along Superior Street. The firm moved out in 2006. Since 2011 the Bible House has been home to Focus on Living, which provides adult foster care. The building’s front façade has since been painted white.

The Northern Bible Society Building. (Image: Zenith City Press)