The NorShor Theatre (aka Orpheum Garage)


The NorShor/Orpheum Annex photographed in October, 1941. (Image: Jim Hefferenan)

207–213 East Superior Street | 1923 Architect: unknown | 1941 Architects: Giliuson, Ellingsen and Erickson | Extant

In 1926 the Hartley Estate, no doubt encouraged by the increased popularity of the automobile, decided to build a parking and service garage along the 200 block of East Superior Street. Guilford Hartley had purchased the property in 1910 when he also purchased the adjacent Temple Opera Block and constructed the Orpheum Theatre around the corner at 8–12 Second Avenue East on the site of the 1889 Temple Opera House. A typical commercial building for its day, the rectangular garage stands three stories tall and is faced with variegated brown brick trimmed in terra cotta. Along Superior Street the building is divided into four bays, each opening to storefronts along Superior Street. Retail businesses occupied the first floor.

Parking and a Northwestern Oil Company service station took up most of the second and third floors. The facility could hold 180 cars, which entered the parking garage through a ramp entrance accessed from the alley. The sign above the entrance to the Orpheum’s art gallery advertised the garage’s services: welding, washing, and greasing. The garage was leased by Joseph Steinman, who first listed it in directories as the “Orpheum Garage and Auto Livery Co.” “Auto livery” meant Steinman was also in the rent-a-car business; he offered customers a choice of Fords or Chryslers.

Liebenberg & Kaplan’s September, 1940, sketch of the proposed NorShor Theatre’s auditorium. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

The garage adjoined the Orpheum and contained the theatre’s offices. As movies became more popular than Vaudeville, the Orpheum struggled to compete with the many movie houses that had popped up throughout Duluth by the time the garage opened. As the garage was under construction, the Orpheum was converted to a movie house and the main entrance was moved from Second Avenue East to 207 East Superior Street, the garage’s first bay. But the adaptations weren’t enough to keep the grand theater lucrative. From 1934 to 1939 it was closed except for a few sporadic attempts to make it work once again as a venue for live theater and movies.

In 1940 the Minnesota Amusement Company leased both the theatre and the garage and hired architects Jacob Liebenberg & Seeman  Kaplan for an ambitious interior remodeling of both buildings. The Orpheum was practically gutted, and much of the parking space overtaken. The Orpheum’s stage was at the east end and its balcony at the west, but when work on the new theatre was complete, their positions were switched. The new theatre’s entrance would be the garage’s third bay, at 211 East Superior Street.

The NorShor’s “Hall of Mirrors photographed in September, 1941. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

The interior design was one of Duluth’s finest examples of Art Deco influence. Patrons entered through a vestibule with a terrazzo floor and walls paneled with polished marble and granite. They then walked up an inclined walkway dubbed the “Hall of Mirrors” for the large mirrored panels centered along the walls. Beyond velvet rope stanchions was the entrance to the main auditorium, with two sets of double-entry doors covered in red leather and brass tacks. A large couch was positioned between the two doorways, facing the east wall which contained inset cast plaster panel kiosks that held posters of coming attractions.

If patrons were early they may have chosen to view the paintings hung in the theatre’s “Little Art Gallery,” which occupied a corridor adjacent to the auditorium. Large couches allowed patrons to sit and enjoy the art hung on its pastel-painted walls. The management planned to feature “the works of Moderns as well as the old masters.” Newspapers called it a “NorShor innovation,” but both theaters that preceded it on that site—the Orpheum and the Temple Opera House—also contained art galleries.

Liebenberg & Kaplan’s sketch of the proposed NorShor Theatre’s auditorium entrance. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

While waiting patrons could also have chosen to take one of two winding staircases up to the mezzanine level, which accessed the balcony and where the architects made sure the building’s interior artwork also celebrated the region for which the new theatre was named. The front stairway, often called the “floating staircase,” featured an eighteen-foot-high photograph of Lake Superior North Shore landmark Split Rock Lighthouse made by noted St. Paul photographer John Kellet. At the time, it was the world’s largest photomural.

Along the wall behind the back staircase Liebenberg and Kaplan designed an Art Deco cast plaster relief mural reflective of Works Project Administration murals depicting a few of the industries that built Duluth: shipping, fishing, and mining. The mural also includes Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge. (Since the NorShor was to be Duluth’s grand movie house, Liebenberg and Seeman also made sketches for a second relief mural celebrating filmmaking; it included images of a cinematographer, a director shouting through a megaphone, dancers, and musicians. It was never made.)

At the top of the NorShor’s Hall of Mirrors approaching the auditorium entrance, September 1941. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

The Arrowhead Lounge was designed for “the smoker’s comfort…every seat is individually air conditioned providing exhaust of all smoke”—the NorShor contained five air conditioning units. Emphasis was placed on comfort, as amenities included an “ultra modern powder puff room, modern rest rooms, and personalized service.”

It also contained the world’s first “Milk Bar,” which served only dairy products—malts, shakes, ice cream, and novelties. Behind the Milk Bar Gustaf Krollman of the Minneapolis Institute of Art painted a Disneyesque mural that depicted “dairy and farm life…dancing calves, skipping milk maids and other intriguing figures.”

This photo was taken from the NorShor’s Little Art Muesum. The photomural of Split Rock Lighthouse is seen reflected in a mirror opposite the actual mural. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

The auditorium itself, including the balcony, held seats for 1,100 movie goers. Newspapers noted that the stage had no proscenium arch—this was a movie house, not a stage theatre. Its screen was billed as the “largest in the Northwest” and the projection booth contained “the very latest in sound and projection equipment.”

The walls were painted in pastels of chartreuse and camelia and featured two large plaster medallions containing friezes of depicting Comedy and Drama. Comedy was personified by a dancing woman holding a smiling mask as minstrel on bended knee strums a banjo-like instrument and sings to her. For Drama, a woman holding a frowning mask closes her eyes and braces herself against a wall while a woman holding a lyre kneels before her, head bowed and her instrument silent. Both standing figures are nude and each minstrel topless.

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