Lyceum Theatre

The Lyceum Theater photographed ca. 1915 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

423 – 431 West Superior Street | Architect: Traphagen & Fitzpatrick | Built: 1891 | Lost: 1966

Like the Masons, Danish immigrant Andreas M. Miller—lumber baron, brownstone quarry owner, and former president of the Village of Duluth—also decided to build a grand theater after the Grand Opera House fell. He called it the Lyceum after the grove near ancient Athens where Aristotle taught his students, but the word described any hall that offered public concerts and lectures. Essentially an office building wrapped around an auditorium, the Lyceum was dubbed the “Handsomest and Costliest Building in the Northwest” by the Duluth News Tribune.

Faced with buff-colored brick and red sandstone with terra-cotta accents, the massive Romanesque Revival building stood six stories high, with prominent corner piers dressed with heavy quoins that rose above the cornice and were topped with stone balustrades. Its twenty-two-foot-wide Superior Street entrance included three large Roman-arch
openings, one two-stories high, ornately carved by George Thrana who included the theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Two seated bronze lions guarded the granite-and-marble entrance stairway. Windows along the fifth floor were set within Roman arches while the building’s street-level storefront windows utilized a new innovation: double thick plate glass.

The Lyceum’s grand entrance ca. 1891, photographer unknown. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

The Lyceum’s auditorium sat 1,500 patrons beneath its crystal chandeliers and ornamental ceiling. The space included a handful of private boxes and three horseshoe-shaped balconies. Light from nearly 1,400 bulbs illuminated the room, whose bronze-and-stained-glass doors closed silently to avoid distracting performers. Its seats offered ample room, padded arm rests, and had perforated leather bottoms to keep patrons cool. Chairs in the balcon were spaced three feet apart to ensure ample leg room. Emma Abbot, who opened the Grand Opera House in 1883, returned to Duluth to open the theater with a performance of the comedy Mrs. Wilkenson’s Widows.

In the 1890s only the stage of Chicago’s famed Auditorium rivaled the Lyceum’s, which measured fifty-six feet wide and forty-five feet deep while the opening of its proscenium was forty feet wide and forty feet high. The Chicago firm of Sosman & Landis created thirty hand-painted backdrops for a variety of sets, from pastoral scenes to palaces to prisons. The drop curtain was made of fireproof asbestos. The Lyceum hosted a two-day run of the Broadway musical The Duke of Duluth in 1906, and its titular star, Nat Wills, was given a key to the Zenith City. The play features a boastful hobo who is mistaken as “the Duke of Duluth.” The News Tribune reported it had “no plot to tax one’s brain” and nothing to do with Duluth, but it did include “extremely catchy” songs and “fifty pretty girls”—and Duluthians loved it.

After the Temple Opera House burned in 1896, the Lyceum had little competition as a performance space. Miller sold his interest in the building a year later. By 1915 it was losing patrons to the Orpheum and the many small movie houses that had opened in the previous ten years. In 1921 the building underwent a fifteen-month restoration and conversion into a movie house. The building’s spectacular entrance was replaced with store fronts and a marquee, and a few years later its bronze lions were donated to the Duluth Zoo.

Like the once-grand hotels it stood adjacent to, by 1960 the Lyceum had become another Bowery building suffering from neglect and disrepair; many locals referred to it as the “Rat’s Palladium.” The wrecking ball came for the Lyceum in February 1966, razing it as part of Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project. The theatrical masks were salvaged and later placed at the entrance to the Duluth Playhouse at the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center (aka the Depot). KDHL-TV built a studio and a parking lot over the Lyceum site, abandoning the building in 2005 when it merged with KBJR-TV. In 2015 the studio was demolished to make room for the Maurice’s building, which was completed in 2016.

The cast of “Our Town” poses on the Lyceum stage November 9, 1908. [Image: UMD Martin Library]