The great debate about the library’s fate: Duluth’s century-long fight over its public library

July 21, 2015


Ray Allard
Zenith News

"A good idea badly executed.” “Cramped from the start.” “It may come as a surprise to many Duluthians that library facilities here are regarded as inadequate and below national standards.” “The present library is inefficient and uneconomical to operate. A new library should be built as soon as possible.”

Quotes from Mayor Don Ness, or one of the many consultants who have recently assessed the condition of the Duluth Public Library? No.

These statements (from newspaper editorials of the day, except for the last, which came from an engineer) began as early as 1902, when Duluth’s first public library opened at 101 West Second Street—still known today as the Carnegie Building, after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who donated $75,000 to build it.

Prior to 1902, Duluth didn’t have a public library. The Young Men’s Library and Literary Association opened a private “reading room” in 1869 (the year before Duluth became a city). Located at 106 West Superior Street, the reading room was accessible for a $5 subscription fee. In 1878, the reading room folded and donated its collection of 600 books to the schools.

Two years later, the women gave it a try and were ultimately more successful. The Ladies Library Association opened in 1880 on the second floor of the Grand Opera House at 333 West Superior Street.

After a fire in 1889 ravaged the building, the Opera House donated its entire $500 insurance payout to reopen the reading room—this time, on the second floor of the Masonic Temple at Lake Avenue and Second Street.

By 1895, the reading room had a collection of 19,000 and the Ladies Library Association began pressing the City for a larger space and the funding to create a public library, free to all, without a subscription payment.

Adolph Rudolph, a teacher at Central High School, designed the Carnegie Building, with its marble grand staircase and iconic glass dome. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1901, with a parade and christening.

Doors opened on April 2, 1902, to just as much fanfare, with speeches by Mayor Trevanion Hugo and School Superintendent Robert E. Denfeld. But the honeymoon was short-lived. The roof began to leak, causing interior damage and requiring extensive renovation in 1908.

Meanwhile, the library’s collection rapidly outgrew the available space. It opened in the Carnegie Building with 25,000 volumes. By 1906, there were 45,000; and by 1917, 70,000, plus state-of-the-art “stereopticons,” a double-lens photo viewer that was among the first uses of 3D.

In 1912, the West Duluth Branch Library opened at 701 North Central Avenue. (In 1992, it was demolished and is now the site of Laura MacArthur Elementary School.) In 1917, the Lincoln Branch Library opened at 2229 West Second Street. (The building was operated as a library until 1990. It now houses the Duluth Art Institute.)

The new branches helped manage the overflow, but while construction was funded by the original Carnegie grant, the cost of maintaining all three drew criticism.

In August 1923, the News-Tribune ran a series called “The Inquiring Taxpayer,” which outlined the increases in operational costs and some of the reasons for them.

“[M]inimum” and “maximum” refer to the salaries now being paid, not to the schedule [which was to be approved by the City Council] of minimum and maximum for certain classes of work—there is no such schedule. Thus, “minimum” does not mean the starting salary nor does “maximum” mean the upper limit.

Mayor Samuel Snively defended the expenditures, saying, “The library is both an educational and recreational service for the people. The value and importance of any city is measured by its library.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the City began planning for a new building to house the public library. The library’s own historical files include an undated, unattributed blueprint and architectural renderings of a conventional flat-roofed design.

But the possibility of doing anything conventional went right out the window in 1969, when the City hired Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts to design it.

A self-described “metaphoric modernist,” Birkerts was the mastermind behind the triangular Corning Fire Station in New York, the Corning Museum of Glass (featuring a tower of 600 glass bowls), and the 1973 Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, built to resemble a suspension bridge. The bank was renovated beyond recognition in 1997 and is now the Marquette Plaza.

Birkerts’ first design idea for the Duluth Public Library was equally fanciful. He wanted to make use of the railroad’s right-of-way to run a mobile library on the tracks, from one end of town to the other, more directly serving the city’s neighborhoods.

By the late ’60s, the Depot had been rescued from ruinous oblivion, turned into the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1968, the City purchased a strip of land across the street from the Depot—a row of decrepit tenements called “The Bowery.” This was to be Gunnar Birkerts’ canvas, upon which he worked out a new library design that was as brilliant as it was bizarre.

The steel gray edifice would allude to an ore boat, in keeping with the city’s maritime history. The “prow” end was to point east—the direction in which the city hoped to expand and develop. The unusual cantilever design made for an upper-story entrance on Superior Street and a breezeway/lower-story entrance on Michigan.

Controversy began before ground was even broken at the new site. For one thing, the cost steadily climbed from the initial $2 million proposal, to the final $6.8 million that was actually spent on it.

The Duluth Economic Development Authority and Mayor Robert Beaudin were totally onboard, but a grassroots group, led by the Arrowhead Civic Club and KDAL manager Odin Ramsland (who called the plan “Beaudin’s Blunder”) began making noise to either change the location or just leave the library in the Carnegie Building.

An article in the November 24, 1976, Port Guardian outlined the conflict. “Opponents of the site...say the library should not be built in what they feel is a congested area where parking is already a problem. In addition, the new library is to be directly across from the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. And some may argue this may destroy the aesthetic beauty of Duluth’s Depot. Others contend the downtown area is not an appropriate site for a library at all.”

“What’s so beautiful about the Depot?” fired back a letter to the Duluth Herald by Selma Saaf on December 2, 1976. “It may have an old architectural style, but every person doesn’t care to look at it as something special and beautiful...Some people say there is no parking nearby. Well, where the old library is doesn’t have any parking either. It’s worse than by the Depot. They also say the view will be blocked by the new library; who has to see it from all directions anyway? It’s the same old story in Duluth, when someone wants to build something new, a group fights against it.”

“We would add our voices to those opposed to the construction of a library across from the Depot,” wrote John and Jane Sommerfeld in a December 3, 1976, letter to the Herald. “We not only object to the location but to the design. One must tax his imagination to the utmost to regard the proposed library as being compatible with the Depot. We agree with those who believe the ideal solution would be to extend the present library, so that we can continue to enjoy the unique building.”

“When I first set eyes on the Depot,” wrote Lou Ann Nylen in a January 6, 1977, letter to the Herald, “it was a beautiful old derelict building, hidden from view, decaying. Then it was uncovered, revamped and given a setting. It was a unique part of the city and it could be seen. Now it is about to be covered up again and diminished by a painful contrast. We cannot afford this. The awful comparison would offend our sensibilities and our children’s, for as long as the two buildings remain. There would be a loss, not in dollars, but in the pleasure that comes from viewing the unusually beautiful.”

Later that year, Beaudin appointed a citizens commission to resolve the debate. The commission proposed moving the building 40 feet to the west, allowing the Depot to peek out over it, and the deal was sealed.

Well...almost. The steel plates in the original design had to be replaced for stability with concrete pillars that would inevitably occupy high-traffic space on all three floors—a foreshadowing, perhaps, to the complaint of today’s consultants that the library is “a forest of columns.”

The new library was dedicated the week of July 4, 1980—79 years to the day after the parade and christening of the Carnegie Building it replaced. It opened for business on November 18, 1980, and found itself immediately understaffed, the ranks of employees having been thinned out in an effort to pare down the ballooning budget.

Public reaction to the final product was mixed. “The color scheme is magnificent, and I like the way it is laid out. It is much more enjoyable than the old library,” one patron told the News-Tribune. “The most interesting building in the city is the Depot,” said another, “and you put the ugly library in front of that.”

Ugly might be a bit uncharitable, but even Don Ness, back when he was a city councilor, admitted to the Budgeteer in 2000, that the building looks less like an ore boat than a spaceship. The “spaceship” has now become one of Ness’ headaches in his final months as mayor.

“The image of the building aligns poorly with the image the city is seeking to cultivate,” said City Councilor and mayoral candidate Emily Larson at a November 12, 2014, steering committee meeting about the library’s fate. “Now that we know [about the library’s problems], we have to do something about it. We just do.”

Her words echoed what was said about the Carnegie Building in 1974, when City administration was full-speed-ahead and only naysayers questioned the wisdom of constructing the same library that the administration now wants to replace.

Despite half a million dollars in repairs as recently as 2008, the City has spent over $150,000 on a capital needs assessment and building and site analyses. First, multinational consultant Ameresco gave the library a failing grade and a prognosis of four years or less before slipping into “critical condition.” Then Minneapolis architects Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle (MSR) identified poor insulation and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), a computer lab too small for the needs of the Digital Era, and annoying aesthetics (i.e., the “forest of columns”).

The steering committee convened in June 2014 and recommended to the City Council that a new library be built. Last February, the Council approved a site analysis by Twin Cities-based engineering consultant, TKDA. MSR’s estimates for either renovating the existing the library or building a new one range from $15 million to $35 million.

But the whole plan turned out to be so wildly unpopular with voters—the word “stupid” appears in numerous letters to the Duluth News Tribune—that even its most ardent supporters were forced to back down.

Ness, who had recommended the issue be put to a referendum this fall and favored a new library on the site of a parking lot at 112 East Superior Street, finally suggested in May to “take a step back.” Larson has also changed her tune from, “We have to do something,” to, “It’s a good idea to take a pause at this point.”

Other mayoral candidates, like Chuck Horton and Jim Mattson, as well as city council candidate Kris Osbakken, are campaigning on a platform of putting a stop to excess spending on a library that’s only 35 years old.

If the past is any indication, today’s naysayers are tomorrow’s administration, and there is nothing new under the sun—or under the cantilever, as the case may be.


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