U.S. Corps of Engineers Building

The 1905 Corps of Engineers Building, ca. 1907, photographer unknown. [Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection]

600 Lake Avenue South | Architect: Walbanks & Bray | b. 1905 | Extant

After work widening the Duluth Ship Canal and constructing its concrete piers was finished in 1902, the federal government dropped an idea to move the Lake Superior headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Duluth to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Instead it chose to build a new headquarters building—the first dedicated Corps of Engineers building in the nation—alongside one of those new piers.

Duluth architects Wallace Wellbanks and William T. Bray designed a square two-story Neoclassical office building faced with tan-colored pressed brick and trimmed in light Bedford limestone. Windows are set within Roman arches, heavy corbels support a stone awning over the main entrance portico, and modillions rest under the eaves of the flat roof’s large cornice, which has since been painted red, as has a cartouche showing an eagle landing on an American-flag shield. The building’s north and south façades each originally carried three window bays, and in 1943 two more bays were added, extending the building eastward. Those who built the eastern bays made a remarkably seamless addition.

One room in the basement was dedicated as a laboratory for testing concrete, which played a key role in most marine engineering projects of the day. Besides the test lab and offices, the building included facilities for draftsmen, a photo studio, a dark room, and a blueprint room. Its first chief, Colonel David D. Gailliard, observed tile water-level indicators installed along the south pier to study wave motion, which resulted in his book Wave Action, still considered a seminal work on the subject. Gailliard later worked on the Panama Canal, dying of mosquito-bourne encephalitis in 1913; the canal’s Gailliard Cut is named for him.

The Corps of Engineers building stands within feet of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge. While the bridge has always been a tourist attraction, its popularity began increasing dramatically in the late 1960s, coinciding with the time the city chose to remove the public “comfort stations” located beneath the bridge’s approach ramps, which had become decrepit. Consequently, tourists had no access to public restrooms, so the Corps of Engineers decided to build restroom facilities adjacent to its building. One-story plans for the bathroom addition were increased to two floors to better compliment the existing structure. Someone then suggested that the extra space could house exhibits about Lake Superior’s maritime history, which in turn sparked more ambitious ideas. By the time the building was completed in 1973, what had started as a need to curb public urination had blossomed into the Canal Park Marine Museum. Designed by architects Aguar, Irying, Whiteman & Moser to resemble the bridge of an ore boat, the museum tells the history of commercial shipping on Lake Superior through exhibits and artifacts. Today the museum is known as the the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center.


U.S. Corps of Engineers Building. (Image: Zenith City Press)