Duluth was a small copper mining town until 1869, when it became the railhead for the first transcontinental railway. Its proximity to Lake Superior made it an excellent location for shipping grain. Located near large forested areas, Duluth's sawmills thrived by the end of the nineteenth century, and the city became the nation's fifth busiest seaport. In 1892, the city's first federal building—a post office, courthouse, and custom house—was constructed.
As the city continued to expand, officials decided to create a civic center and in 1907 invited prominent architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham to develop a plan that would include a new county courthouse, city hall, custom house, federal office building, and plaza. A pioneer in city planning, Burnham was responsible for the layout of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as city plans for Chicago and San Francisco. His plans emphasized the relationship between buildings and their sites. Burnham's design for Duluth, which the city commissioners unanimously endorsed in 1908, incorporated components of the City Beautiful movement, which espoused the use of formal arrangements, axial streets, and monumental, classical public buildings in city planning.
The county courthouse and city hall were constructed first. In 1916, the federal government purchased a site within the civic center for the construction of the new federal building. The U.S. Post Office, Courthouse and Custom House was designed in 1928 by James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, after Congress approved a $1.2 million appropriation. Construction commenced the following year and was completed in 1930.
The building has undergone several renovations. In 1970, the post office vacated the building for a new location, and the first floor was insensitively altered. The building name was changed to the Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse and Custom House at that time. In 2005, as part of the First Impressions program, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) restored historic components of the building that were removed or compromised during earlier modifications.
The Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse and Custom House is located on the west side of the Duluth Civic Center. Designed in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture, the building is compatible with the other buildings that form the Duluth Civic Center Historic District. The Renaissance Revival style was commonly selected for prominent public buildings because it conveyed the dignity of the government. The building displays many classical elements such as a balustrade, columns, symmetry, and classical motifs, including medallions and dentil (square blocks) that define the Renaissance Revival style. The Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse and Custom House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Duluth Civic Center Historic District in 1986.
The Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse and Custom House is faced with polished granite and has a terra-cotta cornice. A flight of granite stairs with granite abutments leads to the first level of the building. A terrace enclosed by a classical balustrade encircles the building. The first story features rusticated granite with tall round-arch openings topped with scrolled keystones. Small, rectangular paired windows are above the arches. The upper stories, which are defined by a string-course and faced with smooth, ashlar blocks of granite, are dominated by two-story engaged Doric columns that separate large windows. These simple columns indicate the location of interior courtroom spaces. Cast-iron spandrels separate the windows, and carved granite spandrels with eagle motifs are located at each end of the facade. Each column is topped with a medallion. Above the columns, the terra-cotta cornice features a dentil course and decorative anthemia (honeysuckle or palm leaf ornaments) at the roofline.
The interior of the first floor contains public spaces that retain many original finishes and features. The floor of the main lobby is covered with light orange quarry tile with green marble borders. The walls are faced with Mankato stone and feature ornamental grilles. The public lobby floor is covered with Tennessee marble with green marble borders. Mankato stone also covers these walls. The plaster ceiling has ornamental vents and brackets, and original light fixtures are found on both the walls and the ceiling.
The post office lobby is adjacent to the main lobby and contains similar flooring materials. The baseboard, wainscot, and counters are white marble with gold veins. The walls have wood trim and Mankato stone piers. The paneled plaster ceiling and decorative brackets remain in place, as do original lighting fixtures and bronze postal boxes.
The fourth floor contains three courtrooms that are very similar in appearance and retain many historic components. Covered with panasote, a type of artificial leather, doors feature bronze brads and kick plates. Walls are clad in sound-absorbing artificial stone that is an original material. Paired pilasters (attached columns) with Corinthian capitals dominate the wall behind the judge's bench. White marble with gold veins is used for door surrounds, baseboards, and on the steps to the judges' platforms. Original light fixtures descend from the ceilings. Tall, arched windows and large, rectangular skylights bordered in a geometric pattern also illuminate the courtrooms.
As part of the 2005 restoration, GSA recreated historic elements including the original post office window. Portions of the elevator lobbies were redesigned to be more historically accurate.
1908: City commissioners endorse Daniel Burnham's plan for the Duluth Civic Center
1916: Government purchases site for a new federal building
1930: Construction completed
1986: Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse and Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Duluth Civic Center Historic District
2005: Historic lobby restored
Location: 515 West First Street
Architect: James A. Wetmore
Construction Dates: 1929-1930
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Contributing building within the National Register of Historic Places Duluth Civic Center Historic District
Primary Material: Granite
Prominent Features: Two-story columns; Restored first-floor lobbies
The Federal Building - U.S. Courthouse and Custom House - is located at the west side of the Civic Center mall, balancing the Duluth City Hall. The Neo-Classical architectural features and details that are very similar to those of the St. Louis County Courthouse and the the City Hall include the round-arched windows on the first floor, plain paired windows on the second floor, Doric columns stretching from the third to forth floor, plain frieze, classical cornice and flat roof. Similar to the City Hall, the basement floor level is exposed on the side (West First Street). For purposes of this report, the front facade of the building faces east. A wide granite stairway with granite abutments leads up from the plaza level to a concrete terrace which spans the width of the entire east elevation. The terrace is bounded by a granite balustrade railing and connects to a walkway at its northeast corner providing access to the county courthouse at this elevated level. The site to the south of the building is a grassy lawn area with mature trees and shrubbery. The south lawn area includes an enclosed playground for the building's day care and an aluminum flagpole. The west end of the south lawn terminates at a concrete retaining wall bordering a paved parking area. The parking lot leads up from the First Street level, spans the entire west elevation of the building and provides access to a raised loading dock. Another concrete retaining wall, approximately 20' tall at its northern end, encloses the west and north ends of the parking lot. On the north side of the building, a grassy lawn slopes back down from Third Street to the level of the front facade terrace. The front facade is four stories in height and is roughly divided into nice bays of fenestration by door and window openings. The seven middle bays are evenly spaced while the space to the outer two bays is doubled. On the first floor level, the granite is rusticated atop a smooth watertable base and features arched opening with projecting console-like keystones. The center three bays contain the entrance doors, replacement mill-finish aluminum units set with the original cast-iron frames and decorative transom bars. Clear glazing has been installed in the tops of the arched openings. Cast aluminum letters reading "CIVIC CENTER POSTAL STATION" are mounted to the cast-iron framework directly above the center set of doors. Four original cast-bronze lanterns with translucent glazing flank the doorway openings. To either side of the entrances are three window openings containing tripled, replacement anodized aluminum frames and sash. Granite panels, a continuation of the elevation's base, fill the areas below the windows. The fist floor keystones support a small, projecting belt course banding at the second floor level. Above this band, that granite wall surface is smooth Asher blacks. The window openings on the second floor level appear as simple punched openings, paired with each fenestration bay. Replacements anodized aluminum frames and double-hung sash units fill the openings. At the third floor level, a wider projecting belt coerce banding provides the base for two-story Doric style columns. Centered between the eight columns are seven two-story cast-iron window frame compositions within granite trim with panelized cast-iron spandrels at the fourth floor level. As with the first floor, these fat-topped openings contain tripled, replacement anodized aluminum window unite. The outer two bays also contain two-story window compositions set within slight recesses. However, they feature carved granite spandrels. The columns support a wide classical entablature which spans the elevation. The entablature features a granite architrave and frieze with flat medallions over the columns. Centered on the elevation within the frieze are panels with letter reading "FEDERAL BUILDING - U.S. COURTHOUSE AND CUSTOM HOUSE." These panels have been placed over the original incised letter which read "U.S. POST OFFICE COURT HOUSE CUSTOM HOUSE". Above the frieze, the materials change from granite to terra cotta. A dentil course supports a bracketed projecting cornice which in turn supports a ornamented chenau faced with decorative terra cotta block and anthemion antefixes. The west elevation matches the design and details of the east facade with the exception of the raised loading dock at its first floor level. The concrete dock spans the middle seven bays. The metal-faced canopy projects over the loading dock and crosses the arched opening at their spring lines. From the first floor up, the north and south elevations are identical to each other. Both are eleven bays wide and exhibit the same materials and details. However, because of the sloping site, the south elevation is five stories tall as the entire basement level is exposed and continues the rusticated finish of the first floor. Is is at this lover level that two secondary entrances are located. Carved granite pediments highlight the double door openings in bays three and nine. Bronze sconces with milk-glass globes flank the doorways. As with the front entrances, these openings also contains replacement mill-finish aluminum doors. The other bays on this level contain paired punched window openings, similar to those on the second floor level. On the interior of the building, approximately two-thirds of the original postal lobby remains on the first floor. The decorative lobby is a continuation of the elevator and stair lobby with its marble floors, Mankato stone walls and plaster ceilings. The elevator and stair lobbies connect the basement to the fourth floor and the original finishes remain essentially intact. The upper three floors are arranged around two light courts and feature double loaded corridors which encircle the building. On the fourth floor level are three original courtrooms. These rooms retain their original acoustical stone walls, stained wood trim, and decorative plaster ceilings with skylights and chandeliers.
The Duluth Federal Building and United States Courthouse is located in the Duluth Civic Center Historic District. The district is significant for its architectural and community planning links with Daniel H. Burnham and the "City Beautiful Movement" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
By the late 1880s, Duluth had become a flourishing city. Duluth's location as the railhead of the first transcontinental railway and its proximity to Lake Superior made it an excellent location for shipping grain and lumber and this business increased rapidly. By 1890, it was the fifth largest seaport in the nation. It was during this time of growth and prosperity that the first major federal building was constructed. In 1892, the construction was completed on the three-story Romanesque Revival style post office, courthouse, and custom house. The building was located at the northeastern corner of First Street and Fifth Avenue West and reportedly cost $230,000.
The development of the existing building began in the first decade of the twentieth century when in 1907, Daniel H. Burham was invited to create a plan for a new civic center for the city, to include a new county courthouse, city hall, federal office building, and plaza.
Burnham was one of the pioneers of city planning and was one of the first American architects to emphasize the relationship between buildings and their sites. Burnham developed some of the first comprehensive plans for such major cities as San Francisco (1905) and Chicago (1906). Although he gained national recognition for these projects, he also worked in many smaller communities as well. His plan for the Duluth Civic Center selected Fifth Avenue West as its axis because that avenue served as a gateway to the city from both the railroad depots and the passenger ship docks at the waterfront approximately 3-1/2 blocks down the hill from the St. Louis County Courthouse. The formal arrangement of his plan for the Civic Center site and the classical elegance of his design for the St. Louis County Courthouse represent Burham's concept to provide Duluth with well-executed monumental buildings, tied into the heart of the city by broad promenades, thereby liking them directly with the city's residents.
In 1908, the city commissioners unanimously endorsed Burnham's plan for a civic group, and directed the city to acquire the courthouse site at Second Street and Fifth Avenue West. Construction on the new St. Louis county Courthouse began in 1908 and was opened October 3, 1909 at a cost of 1,000,000. In 1910, plans for beautification of the courthouse grounds were presented and enthusiastically received by the city. A temporary plan was presented, and a permanent plan was also developed since construction of two additional buildings were anticipated in the future years. In 1916, the federal government purchased a site for a new federal building in the civic center complex. After years of debate, the city council agreed to build a new city hall on the east side of the courthouse, according to Burnham's recommendations. The new city hall was designed by Shefchick and Olsen and was completed in 1928 at a cost of approximately $1,000,000.
While the new city hall was under construction, plans were underway for the development of the third major building of the civic center group, the federal office building. In February of 1927, a $1,200,000 appropriation was approved. The construction drawings for the building, originally named the U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Custom House, are dated November 1928. The building, designed under the auspices of F.E. Sherwood, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, was a harmonious addition for the civic center and its existing structures. According to newspaper accounts, the N.P. Severin Construction Company of Chicago completed the building in October, 1930 at a total cost of $1,105,747.
In August of 1935, a plan for the development of the civic center including a circular drive with a central entrance at Fifth Avenue West was approved. The old federal building was demolished and the new civic center of the plaza is a Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument of the World War I era, and designed by Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert.
Since then, several modernization and improvement projects have been undertaken at the Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse. The most notable took occurred in 1958 when the florescent lighting was installed, in 1970 when the first floor was reconfigured after a new main post office facility was opened at a different location, and in the early 1980s when the windows were replaced.
In 1986, the Duluth Civic Center Historic District, which includes the Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.