Villa Scholastica, aka Tower Hall

Tower Hall, which evolved from the Villa Sancta Scholastica, in 1938, photographer unknown. [Image: College of St. Scholastica]

1909 Villa Sancta Scholastic/Tower Hall | 1200 Kenwood Ave | Architects: German & Lignell (1909), Ellerbe Architects (1914, 1919, 1921), and O’Meara & Hills (1928) | Extant

In 1892 twenty-eight Benedictine nuns from St. Benedict’s Academy in St. Joseph, Minnesota, led by Mother Scholastica Kerst, arrived in Duluth to establish a Benedictine motherhouse and school. The first classes were held at Munger Terrace, also the home of Bishop James McGolrick, who had invited the sisters to Duluth to teach high school to Catholic girls. In 1895 they moved into a new but modest three-story building—a school and convent in one—at 231 East Third Street called Sacred Heart Institute. The sisters also taught at Duluth’s Catholic parish schools.

By 1907 the institute had acquired 160 acres on a former farm along Kenwood Avenue and began building a new academy and motherhouse. Mother Kerst hired Duluth architects German and Lignell to design a three-story Tudor Revival–inspired building with two wings framing a square central tower. Faced with native Duluth basalt trimmed with white limestone and featuring castellated turrets at the corner of each wing, the design looked more like a fortress than a school. The stone, also called blue trap, was quarried on the property, and the quarry site was later turned into the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, which features a statue of Christ. Plans were soon changed to four stories, but initially only the south wing would be built—the rest of the building would come as enrollment increased and the institute’s mission continued to evolve.

According to St. Scholastica Monastery archivist Sister Margaret Clarke, Mother Kerst was made aware of a concern that the building wasn’t being constructed properly and might one day collapse. She hired St. Paul consulting engineer Franklin Ellerbe to examine the building, and he recommended bolstering it with steel bands, steel rods, and iron pillars. Ellerbe oversaw the reconstruction, and in 1909 opened his own architectural firm.

The school, named Villa Sancta St. Scholastica, opened in 1909. Three years later the sisters created a junior college division. Lateral wing additions designed by Ellerbe Architects were made to the building in 1914, 1919, and 1921, when the tower was finally built and Franklin Ellerbe died.

In 1924 the institute became the College of St. Scholastica, after which the building was renamed Tower Hall. In 1927 architects O’Meara & Hills augmented the 1906 design by adding an elaborate, fifty-foot central entrance carved with Catholic symbolism and a second tower duplicating the 1921 addition.

Tower Hall continues to serve the College of St. Scholastica’s Duluth campus, which today offers undergraduate degrees in liberal arts, science programs, and preprofessional programs as well as advanced degrees in health professions, education, technology, business, and social work. It also offers classes in St. Paul, St. Cloud, and several other Minnesota communities and through a virtual campus.

Villa Scholastica, aka Tower Hall, photographed by Dennis O’Hara in 2009. (Image: Northern Images)