Long-silent Duluth Armory may hear music once again

Duluth Armory, 1920
A postcard of the Duluth Armory, circa 1920.
Courtesy of the Armory Arts & Music Center

This weekend marks the centennial of the old Duluth Armory, a once-proud venue that played host to luminaries from Duke Ellington to Johnny Cash.

Located near the waterfront, just across London Road from Leif Erikson Park, the armory today stands vacant and run down, a far cry from its glory years. But as Duluth celebrates the building's rich past, there's new hope for its future.

The Minnesota National Guard built the armory in 1915 for military training. It even featured a specially constructed dirt-filled pit in the drill hall for teaching field tactics like digging trenches. But it doubled as a concert hall and civic center. And it quickly attracted world-renowned performers, including Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1920.

"It was a hall that greeted some of the most well-known musicians of the 20th century," said Nelson French, a member of the grassroots group Armory Arts & Music Center, which came together to save the armory in 2001. "It was a hall that greeted presidents. ... It's just an amazing facility."

The group bought the 100,000-square-foot building from the city of Duluth in 2003 for $1. Since then, it's raised $1.5 million to stabilize it. Still, the plaster is peeling. Strategically placed buckets catch water leaking through the roof.

Mark Poirier
Mark Poirier, project development consultant for the Armory Arts & Music Center, stands in front of the stage where luminaries ranging from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong to Johnny Cash have performed.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

But French sees only vast potential.

"The building was in rough shape," he said. "But as we stand here, if we just put a couple sheets of plywood on the stage to get the bumps out, you could almost put a band in here and have a dance, I think."

Like when Louis Armstrong played here in 1953.

But the memory that still most vividly captures the imagination of longtime Duluthians goes back to a frigid January evening in 1959. As Susan Beasy Latto recalls, it was dubbed the Winter Dance Party, and it featured Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly.

"And the Duluth National Guard Armory was packed with people," Beasy Latto said.

Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly and his band The Crickets performed at the Duluth Armory in January, 1959. Three days later Holly, Ritchie Valens and two others died in a plane crash in Iowa.
Courtesy of the Armory Arts & Music Center

She was 17, a senior at Hibbing High School. She remembers there weren't any seats. So they stood and danced the whole two hours.

"And we thought that was fine," she said. "There was nothing wrong with that. And it was very cold in there, because I remember we had our jackets on."

As it turned out, Beasy Latto would be one of the last people to see Holly and Valens perform. Three days later, after a concert in Iowa, they died in a plane crash, bound for Moorhead, Minn.

Beasy Latto's friend and classmate Bob Dylan was also at the concert. He recalled that 1959 night nearly four decades later, when he won a Grammy for his album "Time out of Mind."

"And I just wanted to say, that one time when I was about 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth, the National Guard Armory, and I was three feet away from him, and he looked at me," Dylan said. "And I just have some kind of feeling, that he was, I don't know how or why, but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way."

Just a couple years after Dylan made that speech, the city of Duluth issued a demolition order for the armory. Duluth architect Mark Poirier helped persuade the city to wait.

Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra
A packed house gathered to watch the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra at the Duluth Armory in 1935.
Courtesy of the Armory Arts & Music Center

"At that time, a group of both preservationists and music fans, especially Bob Dylan lovers, got tighter, and really just said that this building is worthy, it has a great story, it needs to be saved," he recalled.

Now the building is closer than ever to being reborn. The Armory Arts & Music Center has reached a purchase agreement with the Boisclair Corp., a Minneapolis developer.

The company is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the building and could close a deal as soon as February. Boisclair's Jeremy Enge-Frey said the company envisions a mixed office and retail space — including, he hopes, restaurants and live music.

"Our goal with the building is to create a local venue for the Duluth population, something that we can make it survive another hundred years and add to the glory it already has," he said.

The Boisclair Corporation has agreed to a 30-year lease with the Armory Arts & Music Center for the nonprofit to operate a music school and recording studio for youth. The developer also plans to build a four-story apartment building next door.

"Their vision matched ours so well," said Poirier. "It's just phenomenal for our group."

Nelson French already has a dream for a first concert. "A long series of bands," he said, "leading up to the one and only Bob Dylan. That's the prize. It will happen if he's interested. We know he's aware of the work we're doing here."