Oppel Block

The Oppell Block. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

15–117 E. Superior Street | Architect: Oliver G. Traphagen | Built: 1889 | Lost: 1987

German immigrant Christian H. Oppel and his wife Christina arrived in Duluth in 1870, opening one of the city’s early grocery and dry goods stores. By the 1880s the firm had changed its name to Oppel & Sons with Frank, Herman, and Charles Oppel partnering with their father. The Oppels were the first retailers to ship goods between Duluth and the Vermilion Iron Range using the Duluth & Iron Range Railway. The family’s store in Tower, Minnesota, dealt in furs and birch-bark canoes.

The three-story Oppel Building, primarily a Romanesque Revival design, was faced in brick trimmed with brownstone from Ingall’s Quarry in Fond du Lac. It featured pyramidal turrets rising along the roofline, which was crowned with a decorative cornice topped with a pointed pediment containing a frieze declaring “C. H. Oppel.” Other details include Roman-arch windows on the third floor, some with heavy keystones, and intricate carvings over the third-floor windows of the central pier. Oliver Traphagen’s plans for the building were actually drawn by Frederick German, who was new to Duluth at the time and working for Traphagen as a draftsman.

The building’s main-floor store offered men’s and boys’ clothing on one side and groceries on the other. The Oppel family lived on the upper two floors, and with eleven children, they needed them both. The Oppel stores closed in 1907 when Christian was eighty years old, and he died three years later in his home in Virginia, Minnesota. (The family later changed the spelling of its last name to “Opal.”) Other businesses occupied the building until 1987, including its last tenant, an adult book store called the Granada. The Duluth Preservation Alliance attempted to save the building, but the St. Louis County Historical Society’s executive director Larry Sommer testified that the building lacked historic merit. The building was demolished that year and replaced by a parking ramp.