Meet Maryanne C. Norton, coauthor of Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture

Maryanne C. Norton photographed in 2005.

As we wait for Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture to arrive from the printer (expected in early August), I thought now would be a good time to introduce you to my co-author and mentor in researching local history, the late Maryanne C. Norton (1934–2018).

Born Maryanne Chadwick in Minneapolis on September 13, 1934, she graduated Southwest High School before going on to the University of Minnesota where she earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Library Science. While in graduate school she met and married Daniel Norton, and together the pair had a son, John. Dan’s career teaching at various universities had the Nortons moving to several cities throughout their marriage.

Along the way Maryanne also became an architectural historian and avid preservationist. While living in Wausau, Wisconsin, she led the effort to preserve the Milwaukee County Road Depot, made famous by its use as the logo for the Wausau Insurance Company.

The Wausau Insurance Company logo featuring the Milwaukee County Road Depot, which Maryanne Norton helped to save.

The Nortons moved to Duluth in the 1980s, and here Maryanne immersed herself in local history. In 1989 she was named assistant director of the St. Louis County Historical Society. Two years later she resigned, disgusted by what she considered the “unethical behavior” of director JoAnne Coombe. She then began volunteering in the Reference Department of the Duluth Public Library, helping others research local history and their family genealogies. In 2001 Maryanne and Sheldon Aubut published Images of America: Duluth, Minnesota (Arcadia Press). Four years later she received the Duluth Depot Foundation’s Historic Preservation and Interpretation Award.

That was about the same time I met Maryanne. I had stumbled across the vintage postcard collection of Jerry Paulson (and later those of Bob Swanfeld and Herb Dillon) and wanted to use them to make a full-color history book (Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth, now out of print). The problem was, I knew very little about Duluth history. So I went to the library’s main branch, and its staff of wonderful reference librarians introduced me to Maryanne. Soon I was not only well on my way to becoming a skilled historic researcher, but also—at Maryanne’s insistence—had joined Duluth’s Heritage Preservation Commission and had been introduced to members of the Duluth Preservation Alliance. I unexpectedly found myself alongside Maryanne and others, embroiled in the battles to save the 1923 St. Louis County Jail and the 1926 St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

Books cowritten by Maryanne C. Norton. Maryanne also helped write the Duluth Preservation Alliance’s East End Walking Tour.

Maryanne and the DPL’s reference librarians continued to help me research. Maryanne did the lion’s share of research for our 2012 book Lost Duluth, but due to her modesty I had to talk her into allowing me to put her name on the cover as coauthor. The book was a success—a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the source for two documentaries produced by Duluth’s WDSE-TV. While Lost Duluth was still at the printer, Maryanne and I began working on two other Duluth architecture books, “Duluth’s Grand Old Buildings” and “Duluth’s Grand Old Homes.” We made lists of which structures to include, started researching and looking for images, and began publishing monthly stories about buildings on the Zenith City Press website.

We wrote histories of over three dozen historic buildings before other book projects interrupted our work and the architecture projects were set aside. Then, on September 18, 2018, Maryanne—eighty-four years old and still volunteering at the Duluth Public Library—passed away unexpectedly due to a brain aneurysm. A few weeks after her death her son Jon stopped by my house and dropped off five banker’s boxes full of Maryanne’s research on Duluth buildings and homes. It was rather overwhelming at the time, and I had another book to finish, so I put the boxes in a closet.

Not quite half of the research Maryanne left behind that helped create Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture.

The pandemic hit just as that next book, Duluth: An Urban Biography, was published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. Months later another project was delayed, and I found myself stuck in the house wondering what to do next. So I started digging through Maryanne’s boxes, seeing what she had left me. At the same time I was nearly out of copies of Lost Duluth—but that book needed updating before another printing, which created a third architecture project. Eventually an idea hit me: instead of creating three separate books, I could combine “Grand Old Homes” and “Grand Old Buildings” with the most “grand” structures that appeared in Lost Duluth and publish one book, Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture.

I began working on the book in earnest in fall 2021. Maryanne had left me a treasure trove—thousands of photo-copied articles accompanied by her notations and hundreds of pages of her hand-written notes on yellow legal-pad paper. Her work provided both much of the information I needed and clues to finding the information they did not. Moreover, her familiar handwriting helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in my work. But it was bittersweet when the library reopened, as not only was Maryanne gone but also many of my friends in the Reference Department had opted for early retirement during the pandemic. Those who remained, and new staff, helped me continue the research. Others—particularly Rhett Abrahamson of the Twins Ports Past blog—provided the help I needed to write accurate architectural descriptions, which was Maryanne’s forté.

The first page of Maryanne Norton’s handwritten notes on the life and work of Duluth architect Peter Olsen.

As I have mentioned before, when I met Maryanne, I was a writer with a curiosity for local history—and now people refer to me as “Duluth’s historian.” I am honored, of course, but if not for Maryanne I would very likely not be doing what I do today. I still don’t consider myself a historian as much as a writer with a passion for Duluth’s history—a passion instilled by Maryanne. My friend Joe Maiolo taught me how to write, and my friend Maryanne Norton gave me something to write about.

Maryanne isn’t here to argue with me about her invaluable contribution to Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture, trying to convince me to leave her name off the cover. And since she is the book’s coauthor I couldn’t dedicate it to her. So instead I have dedicated Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture to “everyone whose appreciation and love for Duluth’s grand old architecture has been influenced by Maryanne C. Norton’s passion for the city’s historic buildings; may her work on this book inspire generations to follow.” (She would have been embarrassed; I did honor the promise I made to her on Lost Duluth: no author photo in the book nor on its cover!)

I hope you enjoy our book.

— Tony Dierckins

Learn more about Duluth’s Grand Old Architecture:

• Discover a list of all the buildings, homes, and landmarks included in the book here.

• Preview the book here (be patient—it takes a while for the preview PDF to load!).

• Buy the book now and take advantage of several early-bird specials. Just click here.