Duluth tries to trim budget hole with civic yard sale

Minnehaha face
Legend has it that Louis Comfort Tiffany himself hand painted the face of the Princess Minnehaha, standing in front of Minnehaha Falls, on this window which is installed in the railroad depot in downtown Duluth. City officials may sell the window to help pay down Duluth's massive debt.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Ken Buehler is currently in charge of a pair of antique Tiffany windows the city owns. Buehler manages the Duluth Depot Heritage and Arts center in an old railroad Depot downtown.

"These are the two windows," Buehler said, pointing to the side-by-side windows mounted near the building's entrance. "The one on the right is the Minnehaha window. That's the older of the two, made in 1893 by the Tiffany Studios in New York."

Ken Buehler manages the Duluth Depot Arts and Heritage Center. The Depot is the current home for a pair of large and valuable Tiffany windows, owned by the City of Duluth.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Both windows are big; filling a space floor to ceiling near the depot's entry. Both are professionally restored.

The Minnehaha window depicts the legendary Native American princess Minnehaha, standing in front of Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. The second, made a few years later, depicts an early view from Duluth's Park Point.

But it's the Minnehaha that's worth a bundle, between $1 million and $3 million, according to assessors. The Minnehaha is the one city officials hope to sell, with the money going to help fill the city's budget deficit. It could cover almost half of the $6.5 million gap.

"The Minnehaha window was actually commissioned by the State of Minnesota, and was used in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as part of the Minnesota pavilion," Buehler said.

When the exposition closed, a Duluth area civic group bought the window for the city to display in the Duluth library.

Minnehaha Window
The Minnehaha Window was commissioned by the State of Minnesota with Tiffany Studios in New York, for display in the Minnesota Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The window was sold to a civic group that donated it to the City of Duluth. It's believed the window could sell for well over $1 million.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

City officials chose the Minnehaha window for sale, arguing that it doesn't have a strong Duluth connection.

But Buehler said there is an important connection, artist Anne Weston. She designed both windows for Tiffany, and eventually came to live in Duluth.

"One of the reasons Duluth has such an incredible, vast treasure of Tiffany windows, is the fact that Anne Weston lived here and designed windows for churches," Buehler said. "In this case for the library, and other buildings around Duluth."

Buehler is well aware of the city's financial problems, but he's not in favor of selling the Minnehaha.

"The city of Duluth is not a museum."

"Oviously these are desperate times for the city of Duluth, and desperate measures are needed," Buehler said. "I'm not totally enthused about losing such a beautiful treasure. I refer to it as selling the family jewels."

Duluth's civic yard sale includes a lot more than the window. There are plans to sell two pricey lakefront parcels on Park Point for high-end housing. There's even been talk of trying to sell the end of the point to the state for a new state park.

But some officials think million dollar windows are no-brainers.

"The city of Duluth is not a museum," said Mark McShane, director of the city's administrative services. "And, some of the things that we have in our possession aren't necessarily things that we should have in our possession."

Du Lhut window
City officials will not be selling at this time the Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut window, which honors the French explorer credited as the first European to arrive in present day Duluth. This window dates to 1904 and is worth an estimated $800,000.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

But don't go looking for the Minnehaha window on eBay. McShane said, if approved by the City Council, the sale would likely go through a private auction, either to parties like museums, or through a prestigious auction house like Christie's, or Sotheby's.

"As an example, Christie's will be doing an exclusive Tiffany sale in New York later this year," McShane said.

The plan to sell the Tiffany is drawing a vocal opposition.

Penny Clark, who chairs a local Heritage Preservation Commission, is a leading opponent. Clark wonders just where the city's sale will end.

"It really is scary to think that they would do that," Clark said. "In the meeting room that we met in last night, one of our board members looked at a picture on the wall. It's a big beautiful picture that's always been in City Hall. Are they going to sell that off?"

"The chandeliers don't have a significance," Clark continued. "Are they going to sell off the chandeliers? They're part of the building. They've been there forever."

The City Council is scheduled to debate the sale tonight.

"We will be at that council meeting and speak against it, as will other organizations that care," Clark said. "And I hope citizens also come out for this to speak. When all is said and done, all we can do is voice our opinion, hope that they would either take it off the block, or at least table it and think about it."

The council will take a vote on the proposal at its meeting next Monday.