Preservation wins and loses

“It’s been a good year,” local historian Maryann Norton said last week, referring to the former St. Louis County Jail saved from demolition and the city’s purchase of NorShor Theatre and Temple Opera buildings.

To say these are victories for preservationists and those who see such landmark buildings as critical in maintaining the city’s character and history, is an understatement.

Duluth City Councilors were literally deluged with impassioned e-mails Monday from current and former residents about the proposed $2.6 million purchase. The vast majority urged councilors to approve the deal, which they did in a 6-3 vote.

“I just wonder how many people clapped and cheered with me in their living rooms when we heard the NorShor Theatre would no longer be a strip club,” wrote Cathy Wright of Duluth. “I am so grateful that what I see as ‘The Heart’ of downtown Duluth has another chance at success. My heart is singing and dancing with excitement for all the possibilities that this offers our beloved city!”

Coming off such preservation highs, the impending razing of three houses built from 1891 to 1900 in the 1100 block of East Superior and East First streets were met without a fight, though they were designed by noted architects of the day.

There isn’t anything we can do about it, Norton admitted, though she’ll be sad to see them go.

All three houses are privately owned, and the owners have agreed to sell to a developer of a new Walgreens store along 12th Avenue East between Superior and First streets. None are listed on an historic register.

The once grand neo-Greek mansion and carriage house at 1123 E. Superior St., designed by John J. Wangenstein, has clearly been neglected and is in disrepair. One of two Oliver G. Traphagen houses on First Street to be razed has been modified on the outside from its original look. And it’s unclear how much the homes have been altered inside, a critical factor in a house’s historic value.

In historic preservation, there are rules to follow. The jail’s designation as a local landmark was the basis for the fight to save it. But in the case of these three houses, there isn’t a legal basis for a fight, said Carolyn Sundquist, a member of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission.

As for Norton, who is working on a book about the “Lost Duluth,” she’ll unfortunately have more notable homes lost to the wrecking ball to include in her book.