Historic Structures

City Hall, Duluth Minnesota

Date added: June 22, 2010 Categories: Minnesota City Hall Italianate

When the 20th Century rolled in, the history of the City of Duluth had been a roller-coaster ride of booms and busts -- a story of repeated promise and disappointment.

But, 1900 was followed by three decades that only the Great Depression could dampen. Construction in the period reflected earlier promise and, more important, the realization of that promise.

Before the Great Depression would come progress that included Duluth's first and the state's tallest skyscraper; a $14.5 million steel plant, complete with a planned community for its employees; 3 wholesaling facilities that increased jobbing volume from "practically nothing in 1880 to a $60 million asset to Duluth by 1910;" and a $2 million cement plant.

Duluth truly seemed on its way in 1907 when the commissioners of St. Louis County engaged the prominent Chicago architect, Daniel Hudson Burnham, to design a new Courthouse, and later expanded Burnham's commission to cover the design of a "grouping plan" that would include the new Courthouse and a new City Hall and Federal Building.

In theory, at least, the Duluth City Council liked the Burnham grouping plan, and unanimously passed an ordinance approving it on March 4, 1908.

By March 22, 1922, the Council had decided to put the City's money where its 1908 ordinance was, and passed an ordinance providing for the issuance of $1 million in bonds "for the purpose of acquiring a (the grouping plan) site and constructing and equipping a City Hall."

The 14 year delay between the two ordinances was mainly due to argument over the project.

Cost controversy included questions about whether the City should build a practical office building on the site of the original City Hall; follow the Burnham group plan, but construct the City Hall in units as needed; or build in one step, a City Hall architecturally compatible with the Courthouse, which was completed in 1911.

One other matter undoubtedly made the greatest contribution to the drama and emotion of the new City Hall: The selection of the architect.

Among available materials, one of the earliest references to an architect is a March 28, 1922, HERALD article headlined: "German To Draw City Hall Plans." The German was Fred G. German, who the 1922-23 DULUTH CITY DIRECTORY identifies as a member of the firm of German & Jenssen of 411 Exchange Building. The article also noted that all of the commissioners, who were the members of the City Council, felt that the architect of a new City Hall should be a Duluthian.

The next significant reference to architects and Mr. German, in particular, is a November 5, 1925, NEWS-TRIBUKE article headlined: "Council Nulls Agreement for City Hall Plans / Contract with Architects Invalidated; Further Action Slated Today."

While the article did not explain the reasons for the Council declaring itself free "from all previously existing agreements with architects working on plans for a new City Hall," it did reveal a plan for a contest "between architects of Duluth, with $3,000 in cash prizes for the most suitable city hall plans, and a resolution committing the city to employ one of the three winning architects to supervise construction of the new city hall, if decided upon."

Neither Mr. German, his fellow Duluth architects, nor their American Institute of Architects were pleased with the City Council's handling of Mr. German or the contest plan.

However, after the Council's contest plan was upheld by a district court ruling, the contest was launched January 4, 1926, and Duluth Architect Thomas J. Shefchik was announced as the winner May 27, 1926.