First Presbyterian (1870)

Duluth’s 1870 First Presbyterian Church.
(Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

231 East 2nd Street | Architect: Abraham Radcliffe | Built: 1870 | Lost: 1971

Established June 1, 1869, by Reverend W. R. Higgins, Duluth’s First Presbyterian Church was the first Christian congregation organized in the town of Duluth. (St. Paul’s Episcopal was organized not long after, and beat the Presbyterians to the punch by building the town’s first church in 1869.) Early church elders included town founder William Nettleton; Luke Marvin, who represented northeastern Minnesota in the state legislature; John Hunter, a hardware store owner and Duluth’s first Republican mayoral candidate; and Dr. Thomas Foster, editor of the Duluth Minnesotian and the man who first called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” Their families and descendants led the church for generations. Until their church was finished in 1870, services were held at parishioners’ homes and at the town school house.

The wood-frame structure, designed by St. Paul architect Abraham Radcliffe in the Gothic Revival style, featured a square corner tower supported by buttresses and topped with a hexagonal spire, lancet windows and doors, corbels supporting the roof’s eaves, and bargeboards in the gable. Photos indicate it was likely painted in several colors. Three of the tower’s windows are arranged to appear as the eyes, nose, and mouth of a face looking out over the bustling new community. Duluth’s second dedicated church building—the first attempt Duluthians made to construct a truly grand and ornate building—served the city’s Presbyterians for twenty-one years.

The church held its first regular service on March 6, 1870—the same day the Minnesota State Legislature made Duluth a city. The facility’s basement held a large lecture room that was used for Sunday School and other functions, including a fundraiser to outfit the educational facility while the building was still under construction. Over two hundred “ladies and gentlemen” gathered to donate cash and dine on such delicacies as oysters and ice cream. In its early years the lecture room was also the home of Duluth’s Union Sabbath School, which offered classes to Christians of all denominations.

After the First Presbyterian congregation moved diagonally across the street into a new church in 1891, the 1870 building became home of other congregations. From 1891 to 1923 it hosted the congregation of St. Anthony of Padua, a Roman Catholic church founded by German immigrants. It next became the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, which later changed its name to Messiah Lutheran Church, from 1923 to 1970. The building was demolished the following year, its one hundredth anniversary. The lot the church stood on now provides parking space for the Rainbow Senior Center at Tri Tower Apartments.