Washington Elementary School

The 1883 Washington Elementary School ca. 1886, photographer unknown. [Image: Duluth Public Library]

11–9 East Second Street Street | Architect: J. S. Buffington | Built: 1883 | Lost: 1891

As Duluth’s population neared 17,000 in 1884, six public schools served the city, whose borders then stretched roughly from Twenty-First Avenue East to Thirtieth Avenue West. All were named for American presidents: Jefferson, Washington, Jackson, Adams, Monroe, and Madison. New buildings for Monroe and Jackson were under construction, and Washington Elementary was just a year old, having replaced a simple wood-framed structure the year before. Its students lived between Fourth Avenue East and Second Avenue West.

Duluth had hired Minneapolis architect L. S. Buffington in 1881 to design the new Washington school, and he offered drawings that deviated slightly from those used for school building’s in the Mill City. The Duluth Weekly Tribune noted that Buffington’s design included “all modern improvements that go to change the old-time uninviting school room into a place of attractiveness, comfort and convenience, a place where the health of the pupil is not destroyed as his mind is improved.” Those comforts included steam heat and “a most perfect system of ventilation.”
Financial issues delayed the building’s completion until February 1883. Faced with brick, the the two-story Classical Revival building included a central tower that stood 103 feet high above its Second Street façade. Outside of a few arches and pediments, and the square tower belfry, the building was modestly adorned.

The school’s interior held eight classrooms, four per floor and one for every grade from one to eight, each designed to hold forty-four students. When the school opened in February 1883, it held 163 of the city’s 930 elementary students plus all 25 of the city’s high school students, who occupied the second-floor recitation room. Outside of the high school instructor, Professor West, all of the teachers were women. The Weekly Tribune reported that West—also Duluth’s superintendent of schools—had a “habit” of “trying to get rid of teachers who proved to be better scholars or more popular than himself.” Facing public scrutiny for his “mean and cowardly” attacks on a female assistant, he left town after resigning in 1886 and was eventually replaced by the extremely popular Robert Denfeld.

By 1890 Duluth’s population had soared to 33,000, overcrowding most of the schools it had built in the previous decade. That year school board officials decided to build a new, monumental high school on the site of Washington Elementary. Consequently, the 1883 school underwent demolition.