Duluth’s adjoining antiques, the NorShor/Orpheum Theatre and Temple Opera Block stand at intersections more important than Second Avenue West and Superior Street. They stand between the memorial for those who were killed in the infamous 1920 Duluth lynching and the old City Hall and Police Station. They stand between the Union Gospel Mission and the most expensive cocktail bars north of Minneapolis.
Where lumberjacks, attorneys, shipbuilders, and police used to rub shoulders with their masonic overseers, now the hipsters and homeless cross paths near the arsoned Pastoret Terrace and 1920 lynching memorial. True Duluthians know that this is the real center of the city—Canal Park be damned.
The Temple Opera Block and NorShor have been in front of my lens for a decade, and I have been watching the changes and exploring its hidden places whenever I have had the chance.
BUILDING THE TEMPLE OPERA BLOCK
Three small houses, one of which was recently reduced to a mere burned shell the year before, stood where the Temple Opera Block was constructed in 1890. Duluth was in the midst of its most dramatic population boom, and it was hungry for greatness. In the minds of its residents, Duluth was going to compete with Minneapolis and Chicago, and it was only a matter of time before the superiority and sophistication of its denizens would elevate Duluth to its natural position. The Block was to be an architectural statement that this remote hillside town on Lake Superior was now a real city, and the building directory itself pronounced the newfound urbanity:
- First Floor: Retail Space and Pharmacy
- Second Floor: Duluth’s (first) Public Library, Music & Acting Lessons, & Other Offices
- Third and Fourth Floors: Offices
- Fifth Floor: Banquet Hall & Ballroom
- Sixth Floor: Masonic Blue Lodge & Moorish Dome
Behind the block with its offices, lodge, and library, was the Temple Opera House. One may think that the current building is the remodeled incarnation of this opera house, but that is not the case. The Temple Opera burned in 1895—just five years after it opened—and its ruins remained behind the Temple Block until 1905 when they were cleared and converted into the Temple Skating Rink, which could hold no fewer than 700 ice skaters.
It is unclear whether the rink could have been seen from the Moorish dome that adorned the roof of the Temple Opera Block, which had four round windows facing North, South, East, & West. The dome, the rink, and even the top three floors of the Block are gone now.
ORPHEUM RISES FROM OPERATIC ASHES
A decade after it burned, the last of the ruins of the Temple Opera House were cleared for new construction: a new theatre, The Orpheum, would take its place.
Construction of the Orpheum Theatre began in 1910 and it opened on August 22, 1912 as Duluth’s principal vaudeville house, and thus the center of Duluth entertainment. The offices for the theatre were above the Orpheum Garage, which was built at the same time as the theatre on Superior Street with the capacity of about 50 cars.
In the 1920s, as was the case with other vaudeville stages on SUBSTREET, The Palace and The Lyric, moving pictures began to seriously undermine live performances. As a reaction, the stage was fitted with a screen and projection booth in 1929, which helped sustain the space for almost another decade. However, the building was designed around its stage and not for screens. As a movie theatre it could not compete with less expensive, more specialized venues that popped up around Duluth in the 1930s, one even being less than a block away.
Detail: The Projection Booth
Through the 1930s, the Orpheum intermittently closed and reopened, but it was not until 1941 when the theatre and Orpheum Garage were gutted and remodeled that there was promise that the building could host a profitable Hollywood house. The new theatre would be called The NorShor, and its conversion from Neoclassical stage to Art Deco/Art Moderne screen was complete by July. The first film it showed was Caught in the Draft with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Here’s the trailer—be sure you report to your “gag-proof shelter” before playing it, though:
THE NORSHOR REMODEL & TEMPLE OPERA Block’s HAIRCUT
In place of the Orpheum Garage was a new entrance and lobby to the theatre that cut through the middle of the block to the theatre in the rear. Two floating staircases led patrons up to a lounge and the balcony level of the theatre. The balcony was converted into a second venue in 1998, the year that a humble stripper stage was added to the lounge. A white tower supporting the letters ‘NORSHOR’ rose 125 feet above the Superior Street marquee—it was removed in 1961.
With the rise of the NorShor came the shortening of the Temple Opera Block: its top three floors were removed in 1942. The top two floors, housing the Masonic Lodge, and its ballroom and banquet hall, saw only limited use after the Freemasons moved to their new (and current) temple at Lake Avenue and Second Street in 1905. Why these were removed with the third floor has engaged Zenith historians for years.
Detail: Roof of the Temple Opera Block
There is one staircase that leads to the roof of the Temple Opera Block. A false wall hides the last unused stairs that used to continue to the third floor and beyond. Just to the left of this eerie sight is a small hatch and ladder that leads to the new roofline, three levels below the original. The roof is covered in tires—a trademark of sorts of the building’s former owner—along with a few old fast food restaurant benches. The view of downtown is fantastic, but it makes one wonder how much better the view was from the long-scrapped Moorish turret.
UNDER THE TEMPLE OPERA—SECRET TUNNELS DEBUNKED
As a tunnel addict, my ears perked up in 2009 when a series of stories ran telling of the eviction of several people from a downtown tunnel system. I wanted to know as much as anyone what the extent of this system was and its stories, so I found a way down into the real Duluth underground.
Below the Temple Opera Block I did not find a tunnel system that got so much local attention, rather, I found a basement that extended under the sidewalk of Superior Street. A manually operated freight elevator connected this basement with the street level—these were used to make deliveries to the retail stores and theatre above. Municipal steam pipes followed the ceiling of the basement from room to room. Occasionally a low pressure pipe would branch from the main line upwards to heat the retail spaces above. Hasty labels were painted on the brick walls near the valves, showing what used to be above my head: pizza ovens here, a beauty shop there, and so on. Between some of the supporting pillars there were very old shelves built into the walls holding old jars and more discarded miscellany.
My first goal was to see the former apartment that made headlines for weeks after it was discovered a group of people were living (some say squatting) there. Let me say: it was an even mix of cozy and creepy. In one room a bookshelf was packed with the makings of a 1980s elementary classroom, with an entire World Book anthology and miscellaneous LIFE Magazine compilation hardcovers. The most recent publications were piles of The Reader, a free locally written periodical.
A pile of clothes and VHS tapes gave a brief glimpse into the life of the person living in that space for (according to the media) several years. Around the corner was a bathroom with a toilet and claw-foot porcelain bathtub and with shower. Some of the boxes strewn about the space were addressed to the late local celebrity Doug Moen, who ran a costume shop on the third floor of the Temple Opera Block for years. He fell to death in the Twohy Building in Superior in 2013, which he was using as a warehouse after moving his business from Duluth.
Leaving the apartment behind, I decided to test how far the basement stretched. How far could one actually walk? Was there indeed a tunnel to continue through other downtown basements, such as the former department store that is now the Fond-du-Luth Casino? Sadly, no, but there was one more secret in the dark.
Twin black boilers flank the sides of a corner room in the farthest corner of the space, each with the name ‘M.W. Glenn’ proudly molded into the iron. I had come across his name before while researching grain elevators in Minneapolis, where Glenn had done a lot of work as head of the Minneapolis Boiler Works through the 1880s.
After making some unwise investments in the Twin Cities, however, I learned that he sold his Minneapolis shop and relocated to Duluth to begin anew, at least in terms of his creditors. This move did not go well, however, and the Duluth boiler works folded in 1890. In desperation, Glenn moved some of his equipment to Superior to try to protect it from seizure, but it was nonetheless sold to repay those two loaned to him. After leaving his manual skills behind, Mitchell Glenn proved to be a better politician than businessman, though lawsuits over unfinished boilers haunted him for years, even after he relocated back to Minneapolis.
The Temple Opera Block boilers, being installed in 1890, may have been the very last to be made by Glenn, whose handiwork helped power Mill City’s biggest elevators, factories, and flour mills. They remain rusting and unused, but intact, long after being replaced by city steam.
INTO THE NORSHOR
The entryway of the theatre is lined with mirrors and spaces where feature posters one hung. In their place is a scrapbook of films, and shows that were shown in the past. The floor has a slight incline leading upward to the lounge—the last trace of the Orpheum Garage parking ramp that used to be there. At the top of the rise there is a small bar, one of two in the building, across from the first of the floating spiral staircases. These staircases are surrounded by regionally inspired art: one side has a very large panoramic photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse and the other has a Art Moderne style collage showing Duluth’s past industries.
From the main floor there are two doors leading into the main stage, marked by metal aisle numbers and a red padded roof that closely resembles the design of the charming “NorShor Dairy Bar” where a pretty dirndl clad girl would serve flavored milk, ice cream, and other Bridgeman’s Dairy products.
The big proscenium stage and the main house is a very tall room flanked by two nude females painted on medallions. A series of white inset face motifs are backlit along the back rows, giving just enough light for a one to find their seat before a show. In front of the stage are the metal letters from atop the Superior Street sign, supposedly removed so they can be reconditioned.
The front of the theater has overstuffed bench seating along its sides, but no theater seats like the back of the house. Instead, a few high top bar tables and chairs dot the space. A small hole in the bottom of the stage shows that some of the original seating is preserved below it. From the stage looking back, the fact that the top balconies are separated from the original space is obvious—the balcony is sealed with a black wall that extends to the ceiling.
The balcony level and projection booth are now the second performance space behind the lounge, located up the spiral staircases. At the top of the stairs is a small stripper stage—the heavy pole mount is roughly in the center of the stage. The lounge consists of a few tables and bar, where a few shot glasses were left behind, and a pair of simple bathrooms.
The most interesting part of the second stage is its backstage, which is marked by hundreds, if not thousands, of signatures and messages from artists that have passed through its doors. It’s a space with a statement, and I hope it survives in some way past my pictures, like the NorShor itself.