333 West Superior Street | Architect: George Wirth | b. 1883 | Lost: 1889
Duluth’s first theater, a ramshackle affair built by violent gambler George “Big” Hanson in 1869, went by a number of names, including the Theater Shed, the Pine Shed, and the Political Wigwam. The barnlike structure hosted everything from the city’s first production of Shakespeare to “Fat Lady” shows and its life was short, but it outlived Hanson—shot dead in 1870 by his wife, who was acquitted by a jury that commended her on her self-defense skills. When Dutch immigrant Peter Schultz announced he was building a theater at 200 West Superior Street in March 1873, the Minnesotian declared “it will give our city what it badly needs, a commodious hall suited for public entertainments.” The newspaper dubbed the facility Schultz’ Hall, but Shultz himself named it the Dramatic Temple.
While it had a seating capacity of 350, its biggest draw may have been its basement beer hall. The theater opened just before the Panic of 1873 stopped all commerce in Duluth, managing to survive the next several years as a beloved gathering place. But after Vienna’s Ringtheater opera house burned in 1881, killing 449 people, Duluthians began clamoring for a new theater. The Duluth Weekly Tribune led the charge, calling the building “inconvenient as to stage appointments and limited in seating capacity at all times,” sarcastically claiming that it “has one entrance wide enough to permit a thin man to walk in face front, and a stout woman to get in sideways” and that “on the whole, Duluth’s ‘Opera House’ is admirably built—for a furnace.” The paper boldly declared that if the Zenith City had a proper opera house of its own, people in New York and Chicago wouldn’t be “turning up their nose at us.”
By then Duluth’s economy had recovered and indeed started to boom. Two of Duluth’s early residents who cashed in on that success, civic and business leaders Roger Munger and Clinton Markell, stepped up to give Duluth the kind of opera house the town felt it deserved. After struggling along with everyone else in the wake of the 1873 panic, the pair had eventually found great success with their Lake Superior Elevator Company, which constructed grain elevators. They hired St. Paul architect George Wirth to design the Duluth Grand Opera House, built at the northeast corner of Superior and Fourth Avenue West by Wirth’s construction superintendent in the Zenith City, Oliver Traphagen.
The Grand Opera House stood four stories tall and was capped with a mansard roof executed in several different shades of purple and crowned with iron cresting. It was essentially Classical Revival building covered with Second Empire French elements and Victorian flourishes—and perhaps the most architecturally festooned building that ever stood in the Zenith City. Its exterior walls were light-colored brick with terra-cotta and brownstone trim, and the central pavilion along Superior Street featured the grand entrance over which sat an arched balcony and a dome with dormers, columns, and finials. Round towers topped the building’s corners along Superior Street, and a profusion of carved ornamentation graced the entire structure. The building was fitted for steam, water, and gas and included a hydraulic elevator.The theater’s main auditorium could accommodate one thousand patrons. Master stage carpenter G. H. Carter came from Chicago to oversee construction of the stage, an unusually large performance space for its day measuring thirty-three feet deep, fifty-two feet wide, and thirty-five feet high. The stage was outfitted with a “dozen sets and fifty or more wing pieces” and two drop curtains. One curtain showed a view of Venice, Italy, and the other was “of satin of old gold color, with heavy trimming at the bottom of crimson and gold” and described by newspapers as “the most costly in America.” The balcony contained six private boxes offering a total of thirty-two seats. The Duluth Weekly Tribune described their lavishness: “Over the upper box a very handsome ‘hood’ in ornamental and gilded iron work reaches to the ceiling. The boxes are enclosed by nickel-plated rails, and draped with maroon silk and blue Turkish satin curtains.” Duluth’s social elite, including Luther Mendenhall and Judge John D. Ensign, scrambled for the best private box in the house but were outbid by A. J. Whiteman, Duluth’s “handsome, young senator” from Dansville, New York, who also happened to live in the opera house building.
When the theater opened, the Duluth Weekly Tribune proclaimed, “There is no modern improvement or convenience that [Wirth] has not adopted.” Duluth’s social elite gathered on September 20, 1883, when the Emma Abbott Opera Company opened the theater with their production of the popular opera Martha to a full house, which included Wirth and his wife, who traveled from St. Paul for the event.
The following day the Duluth Daily News referred to the Zenith City’s elegant new showplace as “Duluth’s pride and joy.” In addition to the auditorium, which brought world-class entertainment to Duluth (Abbott was then considered the nation’s foremost soprano), the Grand Opera House served the city in many other ways. It contained the rooms of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, the Ladies Literary Library (which evolved into the Duluth Public Library), a few sleeping rooms for wealthy single young men like Whiteman, Gasser’s Grocery Store, several business offices, and the Kitchi Gammi Club, which occupied most of the top floor.
Ironically, the Grand Opera House—built to replace a theater considered a fire trap—was itself destroyed by a fire that began in Gasser’s on a bitterly cold January night. The Daily News cited firefighting delays and blunders, including frozen water lines, for allowing the flames to grow out of control. Some speculated that the fire was caused by “a mischievous mouse nibbling matches.” The fire caused such intense heat it cracked every window of the St. Louis Hotel across Superior Street. Twelve people were asleep inside when the blaze began, including Whiteman. The senator was the last man out, climbing down a ladder to safety. The following year he wrote the legislation that helped Duluth regain its city status, and a few years after that he fled town after being caught cheating at poker. He later became notorious as confidence man and forger known as “Jim the Penman” and was eventually captured by Pinkerton detectives while attempting to escape them from his family home in New York by crawling out of a window and down a ladder.
Despite public demand, the Grand Opera House was not rebuilt; the following year the original Phoenix Block was constructed on the site. Duluthians worried that folks in Chicago and New York would soon be looking down their noses at them were quickly relieved when the Temple Opera House opened later that year.