Wolvin Building (Missabe Building)

The Missabe Building on May 1, 1946, photographer unknown. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

225-231 West First Street | Architects: Palmer, Hall, & Hunt | Built: 1902 | Extant

Augustus B. Wolvin was was just ten years old when he first signed on as a cabin boy on Great Lakes steamers, attending limited school in the winter when lake navigation was suspended. By 1878, the twenty-one-year-old Wolvin was master of a vessel. After moving to Duluth in 1888, he incorporated a general vessel commission business that later became the Zenith Transit Company. In 1901 Commodore Wolvin’s business was absorbed by the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, a subsidiary of United States Steel (USS) created by consolidating nearly every shipping company working the Great Lakes, which created a fleet of 112 vessels. Wolvin was its general manager until 1904.

The same year Wolvin went to work for USS, he organized a group of investors including Joseph Cotton and Chester Congdon to finance the construction of an office block at the northeast corner of Third Avenue West and First Street for use by the mining and transportation divisions of USS, whose creation in 1900 made many Duluthians quite wealthy—particularly Cotton and Congdon. At the time, USS-affiliated companies occupied offices in the Board of Trade, Lyceum, First National Bank, and American Exchange Bank buildings. The new building would consolidate them in one facility.

The investors—officially the Wolvin Company—commissioned a seven-story Classical Revival building with Romanesque Revival touches faced with rusticated Portage Lake brownstone along the first two floors. A two-story recessed Roman-arch entrance portico originally welcomed visitors into the building along Superior Street. The upper floors are faced in tan brick, with slightly darker bricks used as corner keystones. The top floor is set off from the rest of the building by a row of dentils topped with a terra-cotta garland, cartouches, and a highly decorative terra-cotta cornice dressed with modillions that sit above a row of dentils. Except for a men’s clothing store that briefly operated out of a Superior Street storefront, the entire building was occupied by USS subsidiaries including the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad (DM&N), the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad (D&IR), and several mining companies. Wolvin’s steamship company occupied the top floor. The Wolvin Company cashed in quick, selling the building to the State Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts, before it was even complete.

After USS’s 1907 announcement that it was building a steel plant in Duluth, the State Mutual hired William Hunt to help contractors add two more stories to the building. Hunt’s plans simply raised the top floor and added two more stories beneath it that looked identical to the original fourth through sixth floors. Since then, the building has changed little, although at some point after 1946 the Superior Street entrance portico was removed and replaced with a rectangular opening faced with polished stone. The DM&N and D&IR merged in 1937, becoming the Missabe & Iron Range Railroad, which purchased the building and changed its name to the Missabe Building. The building continues to serve downtown Duluth.

A lithographic postcard of the Wolvin Building ca. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)