Silberstein-Bondy Block

The Silberstein-Bondy Store photographed ca. 1910. [Image: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives]

9–11 West Superior Street | Architect: George Wirth | b. 1884 | Expanded 1902 (F. German) | Remodeled 1927 (Giliusin, Ellingsen & Erickson) | Extant

In 1866, 18-year-old Hungarian-born Bernard Silberstein left Vienna, where he was educated, to emigrate to the United States. He eventually landed in Detroit, but soon after headed to Duluth for, as he often said, “only to look around.” Silberstein must have liked what he saw. He returned to Detroit to marry Ernestine “Nettie” Rose Weiss, also a native of Budapest, then took his bride to the Zenith City for their honeymoon. The Silbersteins stayed, creating Duluth’s first successful dry-goods store and helping to establish its first synagogue, Temple Emmanuel.  Bernard and Nettie, along with brothers Asa and Henry Leopold, were Duluth’s first Jewish residents. Though greatly altered from its original design, Silberstein’s 1884 building stands today as a reminder of two of Duluth’s true pioneers and civic leaders.

Silberstein began his career in Duluth selling items from house to house before he and William Farrell opened what is considered Duluth’s first dry-goods store, which, according to his 1922 obituary, sold “everything imaginable.” (“Dry Goods” defined everything that was not considered hardware or groceries.) Before the year was out, the pair had joined forces with a man named Whitcher to form Whitcher, Silberstein & Company, referred to in newspapers as “Whitcher & Silberstein’s Fancy Furnishings Store.” The partnership was short-lived. By 1872 Silberstein was working with Isaac Bondy under the name B. Silberstein Company. Bondy, who lived and worked in New York City, acted as the company’s purchasing agent. In 1881 they organized the Silberstein & Bondy Company.

The store operated out of several Superior Street buildings, first at 1416 West Superior Street and then, in 1875, at 405 West Superior Street. In 1884 Silberstein hired St. Paul architect George Wirth to design a new building to house his ever-growing store. Between 1882 and 1886 Wirth designed some of Duluth’s most prominent Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, and his head carpenter Oliver Traphagen built a string of them along the upper zero block of West Superior Street, including a pharmacy for Wirth’s brother Max, which survives today as Lizzard’s Gallery. Traphagen would later take Wirth’s place as Duluth’s premier architect. Part of the construction involved building a private sewer to Lake Avenue, as the trunk sewer along Superior Street had not yet been built.

The Silberstein-Bondy building originally stood two-stories high, faced in brick and red sandstone. The first level was simple: three large windows on either side of a central entrance, so that the merchandise within was always on full display. The second-floor façade was divided into three sections, a large center section with four windows flanked by narrow sections each with a single window. Above the windows, arched brickwork contained carved brownstone friezes of figureheads and cherubs. The entire building was capped with a massive sandstone parapet with more carvings at the corners and the words “Silberstein & Bondy” centered in relief.

When the new building was complete, the dry-goods store occupied the entire first floor. The second floor held the company offices, offices of several lawyers, and, for a time, Mayor J. B. Sutphin. Since Duluth had no city hall until 1889, Sutphin used his office in the Silberstein-Bondy building to conduct city business before moving to the Hosmer Block at 13–15 East Superior Street. (It has often been reported that the building contains the first elevator installed in Duluth, which is still functional, but to date we have found no information to verify this claim.)

By the turn of the century, Silberstein & Body was booming along with the rest of Duluth, and both floors and the basement were all dedicated retail space. By then Bondy had set up purchasing office in Paris so that the Duluth store could keep up with all the European fashion trends. In 1902, needing even more space, Silberstein hired architect Frederick German—once a draftsman for Oliver Traphagen—to add 7,000 more square feet to the building. German’s plans added another story to the building; the second-story façade and parapet were raised to the third-floor level, and a new second-floor façade following the same basic design as the original was installed.

A newspaper article about the addition called Silberstein “one of the most public spirited men in Duluth” and that “in a business way he has but few peers and no superiors in this part of the country.”

Indeed, Silberstein was very interested in guiding Duluth forward. He served on Duluth’s Parks Board from its inception in 1889 until 1913, when it was eliminated under Duluth’s new commission form of government. That same year Silberstein ran for mayor but was defeated by W. I. Prince in one of the wildest political contests in the history of Duluth. Two years later he ran for city commissioner. Both he and James Farrell, who also lost the mayoral race to Prince in the 1913 election, were elected by wide margins; Farrell was the nephew of William Farrell, Silberstein’s first business partner in Duluth. Silberstein held the office of commissioner of public safety until 1919, when he refused to run for another term.

He also served on Duluth’s Library Board, was a prominent thirty-third degree Mason of Duluth’s Palestine Lodge, belonged to Covenant lodge (an Independent Order of B’nai B’rith), and both he and Nettie were heavily involved in Duluth’s Temple Emanuel, providing much of the funds used to build its first synagogue.

In 1912, construction began on the Silberstein’s new 8,000-square-foot Georgian revival home at 21 North 21st Avenue East designed by Frederick German. The Silberstein family obviously enjoyed German’s work; in 1909 their son Edward and his wife Rose hired German to design their Prairie-Style home at 2328 East Third Street. It is said that Bernard had the home built in secret and surprised Nettie on their golden wedding anniversary by handing her a key as they stopped in front of the house to admire it. They then named the house “Highpoint” to symbolize the crowning “high point” of their marriage. But according to current owner Jon Niemi, Nettie’s name appears on deeds and other documents signed before and during construction—and when the house was complete in 1914, the Silbersteins were still six years shy of their fiftieth anniversary—so the story is likely apocryphal.

If 1914 was the high point of the Silbersteins’ marriage, then 1920 was the high point of public recognition for Bernard. Recently retired from politics, he celebrated the golden anniversaries of his marriage, his business, and his membership in Covenant lodge, and Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, which held a golden jubilee banquet and ball in honor of Mr. Silberstein. The event was described as “the most brilliant ever staged by the Jews of Duluth, Superior and Northern Minnesota and, in a small measure, indicated the esteem with which he was held by the people of his faith everywhere.”

That esteem was on display in Duluth newspapers two years later, when Bernard Silberstein passed away on September 3, 1922. He had been ill for some months and died in his home. The flag over city hall flew at half mast, and both the Palestine Lodge and Covenant Lodge held services. He was buried at Woodland Cemetery. Nettie stayed at Highpoint until she joined Bernard at Woodland in 1932.

Edward, who had worked as the store’s general manager since 1903, took over after his father’s death; Isaac Bondy had died some years earlier. In 1927 Edward hired architects Giliusin, Ellingsen & Erickson to design a new $45,000 neoclassical façade for the store. The brownstone was removed, replaced with stucco and terra cotta reliefs including Corinthian columns, bands of garland, swags, and shields. The name “Silberstein & Bondy” was prominently displayed in terra-cotta relief near the top of the structure.

The Silberstein-Bondy Store photographed in 1963 by Perry
Gallagher Jr. [Image: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives]

The new look followed the construction of the Hotel Duluth, which also features many terra-cotta decorations on its façade. According to the Duluth Preservation Alliance’s Dennis Lamkin, the terra cotta on both buildings is the work of the Chicago Terra Cotta Tile Company. Lamkin also believes that today’s Shel-Don Reproduction Center at 124 East Superior Street and the Zietgiest Arts Center at 216-218 East Superior Street may have had their terra-cotta ornamentation added at this time as well as part of a terra-cotta trend started by the Hotel Duluth.

The year after Nettie Silberstein died, the family sold the building and the business. Edward passed away six years later. The building housed the Melrose Millinery from 1935 to 1937. From 1938 to 1940 Bud’s Style Shop, which sold women’s clothing, operated out of the western half of the building, while Dotty Dunn’s Hat Shop was in the eastern half from 1938 to 1946. From 1949 until 1955 Mangels of Minnesota, which sold woman’s clothing, occupied the building. From 1956 to 1957 the building housed Fields Women’s Clothes, then stood vacant until 1965, when Northwestern Bell moved in. Hyland Blood Donor Services moved in in 1975 and eventually became ZLB Plasma Services, which relocated to the former Woolworth’s Building in 2007. The building is now home to Ragstock, a clothing store, and aimClear, an online marketing firm.

In 2014 the building’s owners hired Johnson Masonry to repair and tuck point the 1927 terra-cotta façade, which had deteriorated considerably. During this effort stoneworkers removed metal plates that had been covering up the words “Silberstein & Bondy.” It has been suggested that the plates were installed in 1927 along with the new façade, but the original brownstone name was carved with sans serif lettering made of brownstone, and the relief uncovered in 2014 is of serif lettering executed in terra cotta and matches the architect’s 1927 sketch of the remodel. The metal was likely placed on the building some time after the Silberstein family sold it in 1933.