Torrey Building

George Thrana’s stone-carving work was the highlight of the Torrey Building’s original two-story Superior Street entrance. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Another early tenant of the Torrey Building was Miller’s Café, a descendant of the Miller Cafeteria J. W. Miller founded in 1887. The Miller Café would later move to the Medical Arts Building and was operated by the Miller family until 1953 (in 1959 it became The Captain’s Table, which closed in 1972).

In 1900 Captain Torrey moved to New York City, where he stayed the rest of his life. Local real estate man E. P. Alexander took over operation of the building for Torrey. The Captain remained a frequent visitor to the Zenith City and maintained his memberships at the Kitchi Gammi Club and Northland Country Club. In 1902 he purchased a lot at the corner of 12th Avenue East and Superior Street, where he planned to build a three-story flat building; for whatever reason, it never went up.

The Time Ball

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Torrey Building was installed on its roof. In 1898 a U.S. Hydrographic Office was established in Duluth, and it set up shop in the Torrey Building. This was a very-deliberate decision, as the Torrey was the tallest building in the city and that’s exactly what the Hydrographic Office needed for its time ball.

The Hydrographic Office was part of the Department of the Navy, intended to help mariners navigate. It was establishing stations in major ports along America’s coasts and on the Great Lakes, including New York City, Buffalo, Cleveland and Duluth. One feature of the office was the time ball—literally a ball that dropped from a rod at precisely noon each day, based on a telegraph signal sent from the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. It was designed to allow ship and ore-boat captains to set their chronometers accurately. In Duluth (and elsewhere, we assume) local residents and businesses who could see the ball also used it to set their mechanical clocks and watches.

The catch was that while the federal government ran the station, the local municipality was expected to pay for the ball, and Duluth did not respond in a timely manner. It took until 1902—and pressure from various business groups—before Duluth purchased the machinery. The apparatus cost $500; the ball itself was four feet, ten inches in diameter and weighed 150 pounds.

If the time ball reminds you of the ball dropped from One Times Square in New York each New Year’s Eve, it should: that’s a time ball, but not the city’s official time ball. The Hydrographic Office’s New York City time ball sat atop the Western Union Building. The “New Year’s Eve” ball was installed on One Times Square by that building’s owner, Adolph Ochs, who also owned the New York Times, at the time housed at One Times Square. Ochs used the time ball to replace a New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration he had started a few years earlier. New York’s ball first dropped to indicate the new year as 1907 turned to 1908.

Interestingly enough, the same year Captain Albert Swenson of the U.S. Hydrographic Office in Duluth attached eight red electric globes to the ball above the Torrey and dropped it at midnight as well. While the News Tribune called this idea Swenson’s innovation, it is likely that Ochs’s plan had been well publicized in newspapers across the country. And even if Swenson’s idea was independent of Ochs’s, the ball dropped in New York City an hour before it did in Duluth, so New York remains the first city to drop an illuminated ball on New Year’s Eve, but Duluth could well be the second.

Newspapers indicate that this tradition lasted several more years in Duluth, perhaps more. Most of the U.S. time balls were dismantled by 1922, after radio time signals introduced during World War I rendered them obsolete. Duluth’s stood atop the Torrey Building until at least 1928, when the Duluth Herald felt compelled to explain to its readers exactly what that ball on top of the Torrey was for. It was likely gone by 1936, when the Naval Observatory’s own time ball was decommissioned.

The Torrey Loses Its Status

In 1910 the Torrey lost its title as “Duluth’s Tallest Building” when the 16-story Alworth Building went up two doors east. Six years later Torrey himself died of a stroke in New York; he was 76. His brother Jay visited the Zenith City to settle his affairs, which were hung up in probate court for some time. The building was eventually sold to W. S. Moore Realty for $250,000 (about $4.5 million today) under the management of Whitney Wall, who had taken over from Alexander in 1906.

Moore Realty still owned the building in 1961, when the firm hired architects Morgenstern & Stanius to replace the grand brownstone façade of the first two floors. George Thrana’s carvings were chipped off and covered with grey granite panels, removing much of the building’s character. By 1992 the building was owned by the Amendola family and managed by Bowman Realty. That year they renovated the building, replacing the mechanical systems and converting from steam to electric heat with individual heating/cooling units on each floor. The elevators were upgraded and the Michigan and Superior Street lobbies were renovated.

Today the building is owned by Torry [sic] LLC of Brainerd, Minnesota, and houses roughly forty tenants, including Saturn Systems, Duluth Building Trades Welfare and Vacation Funds, Glyphics Design, Harbor City Psychological Associates, Lake Superior Humane Society, the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling, Northland Special Event, Ten Talent Capital Management, and several law offices.

There are at least a dozen buildings in Duluth today that eclipse the height of Duluth’s “First Skyscraper,” and a new 11-story headquarters for Maurices, Inc. is going up a block away from the Torrey as this is being written in February 2015. The majority of those tall buildings are hotels or housing facilities for seniors and low-income individuals built since 1969, and nearly all stand as unremarkable examples of modern architecture. The Torrey may have lost the façade that made it one of the more unique buildings that ever stood in the Zenith City, but the fact that it still serves Duluth 122 years after it was built is nothing less than remarkable and a testament to the forethought of its architects and financier. If properly maintained, it could serve for another 120.

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