French & Bassett Block

French & Bassett Furniture Store ca. 1920, photographer unknown. [Image: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives]

302 West First Street | Architects: Long & Kees | Built: 1905 | Lost: 1948

After Charles E. Bassett joined George A. French to form French & Bassett Furniture in 1892, the pair decided to move from the Wieland Block and into a new, larger building of their own at the southwest corner of Third Avenue West and First Street. They hired Minneapolis architects Franklin B. Long and Frederick Kees, known for their Richardsonian Romanesque Revival designs, including the 1888 Minneapolis City Hall—which looks not unlike H. H. Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse, the model for Duluth’s 1892 “Old Central” high school. Their design for the Duluth furniture store was much more restrained, a three-story building faced in brick and trimmed with brownstone with a one-and-a-half-story, elaborately carved Roman-arch entrance along Third Avenue West and Roman-arch windows within the third floor’s central piers. The building’s outer bays protruded to give them the appearance of towers, and each was topped with a balustrade parapet. Signs reading “FRENCH & BASSETT” were placed between the parapets along both the First Street and Third Avenue West façades.

In 1907 the firm increased its retail space by moving its storage operation to a new warehouse along Michigan Street and adding “two floors to the building…one on the top and one on the bottom,” as French joked with reporters. In actuality, one of the “new” floors was the basement, remodeled from a storage and shipping facility into retail space. Large windows were added to the basement level where it sat above ground along Third Avenue West to entice customers. For the other “new” floor, the building’s original flat roof was replaced with a tall mansard roof adorned with elaborate metal dormers that carried oval windows, essentially creating a fourth level.

Following Bassett’s death in 1935, the company reorganized as French, Bassett & Scott, and John Scott became its president. French died in 1938, and nine years later the business sold the building to  Superior furniture dealer Maurice Rudolph, who then expanded his business into the Zenith City. Newspapers reported that French, Bassett & Scott were moving into the Bradley Building at 2–6 East Superior Street and even announced a grand opening in May 1947. By the next year, however, the company had moved back to its roots in the Wieland Block, where it stayed for ten more years before going out of business.

Rudolph’s history within the 1893 building was brief, as it was consumed by fire on June 4, 1948. According to Duluth Fire Department historian Jarry Keppers, the fire started in the basement and soon every available Duluth firefighter was called to the scene, assisted by the Superior and Proctor fire departments. The building was a total loss and did considerable damage to adjacent buildings, including Elk’s Hall, the Board of Trade, and the Wolvin, which lost 216 panes of glass that exploded under the intense heat. Flames, heat, and falling debris destroyed six cars—yet only three people, including one firefighter, were injured, and none seriously. Duluth’s YMCA now occupies the store’s former location.