Temple Opera Block

The Temple Opera Block (and Opera House) before 1896, photographer unknown. [Image: Duluth Public Library]

 201–205 East Superior Street | Architects: McMillen & Stebbins | b. 1889 | Extant (mostly)

Ask most Duluthians where the Temple Opera Block is and they likely won’t be sure what you’re talking about. The three-story building at 201 East Superior Street, just west of the NorShor Theatre, was originally constructed to be one of the Zenith City’s grand architectural statements at the time of Duluth’s rebirth. It’s hard to tell by looking at it, but “that brownstone building next to the NorShor” once stood seven stories tall and was capped with an onion-shaped copper dome designed to look out on all four directions of the compass.

Masons have made their mark on Duluth since before the Zenith City was even a city. They established Palestine Lodge No. 79 in Duluth on January 29, 1870, with Colonel J. B. Culver installed as first grand master. When Duluth became a city two months later in March, 1870, Culver was elected the community’s first mayor. Duluth’s second mayor, Clinton Markell, was also a mason, as were many other community leaders over the years, including W. W. Spalding, William Sargent, Mayor Trevanion Hugo, Walter Van Brunt, Robert Whiteside, Bernard Silberstein, and William McGonagle. In fact just about any man in Duluth with business or political aspirations joined the Masons. Thomas McGilvray and William Patton, Duluth’s city engineers who oversaw the construction of the aerial bridge, were both masons. Patton, in fact, was considered “one of the leading masons of the world” when he died and was one of four charter members of the King Solomon Temple of England; two of the three others were U.S. presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

In the 1870s Duluth’s masons had built themselves a modest wooden temple at the northeast corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue East. By 1888 Duluth had seen it all: a boom in 1869, a bust in 1873, reduced to village status in 1877, and finally, in 1887, a rebirth as a city. Grand municipal buildings were being erected: an armory for Duluth’s Third Regiment on First Street and Second Avenue West, a County Jail and Sheriff’s home at Sixth Avenue and East Third Street, and a grand City Hall with a matching police headquarters and jail next door, to be built across the street from the temple at the southwest corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue East. Both of the city’s municipal buildings were designed by Oliver Traphagen in the Richardsonian Romanesque style popular at the time, highly decorative buildings faced with brownstone, terra cotta and brick. Construction on City Hall was scheduled to be complete in 1889.

Duluth’s Masons, driven by Duluth pioneer real estate developer J. D. Ray, decided the time was ripe for the old wooden temple to be replaced with a building as grand—if not more grand—than city hall. Ray hired Charles McMillen and  Edward Stebbins to design a temple in the Romanesque style that would complement Traphagen’s work across the street. Ray was quite familiar with the architects’ work, having hired them to build his home and that of his son and business partner, Robert. Stebbins designed many Minneapolis schools and the Kenwood Parkway house made famous in the opening credits of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (Tyler Moore’s character, Mary Richards, lived in the house).

Before drawings were complete Duluth’s 1883 Grand Opera House was consumed by fire on January 28, 1889. Considered Duluth’s architectural “pride and joy,” the opera house was not only the seat of culture in the Zenith City but also contained the offices of the Kitchi Gammi Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Ladies Literary Society, which essentially operated as Duluth’s library.

So Ray had the architects add an opera house to the plans to fill the void left by the loss of the Grand Opera House. It was a separate but connected building behind the temple with an entrance off Second Avenue. He hired Oscar Cobb to design the theater’s auditorium and grand covered entrance. That addition led to the buildings’ names: The Temple Opera House and the Temple Opera Block.

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