Historic Duluth Armory could soon hear music once again

A man stands at a podium
Developer George Sherman discusses a $25 million plan to restore the historic Duluth Armory during a news conference at the armory on Dec. 20.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The historic Duluth Armory, a once-proud venue that played host to luminaries from Duke Ellington to Johnny Cash, but then fell into disrepair, is on the cusp of being reborn as a new cultural center. 

The local nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center has teamed up with Minneapolis-based Sherman Associates on a $25 million plan to restore the old brick building and repurpose it as a mixed-use commercial and artistic space.

“Moving forward as partners, we will honor the armory's rich past in updating it to reimagine its future,” said Armory Arts and Music Center executive director Mark Poirier at an event announcing the development agreement. 

The Minnesota National Guard built the armory in 1915 for military training, located near the waterfront, across from Leif Erikson Park. But it doubled as a concert hall and civic center.

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In 1959, a young Bob Dylan was in the audience to watch Ritchie Valens and his hero Buddy Holly, three days before they died in a plane crash. 

In his 2016 lecture after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dylan recalled that night, “the dawning of it all,” when he stood six feet from the stage, mesmerized by Holly’s presence. 

“He filled me with conviction,” Dylan recalled. “Then out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And he gave me the chills.” 

The Duluth Armory, shown here in November 2015.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

In the early 2000s, the city of Duluth issued a demolition order for the dilapidated building. Poirier and other preservationists and Dylan buffs convinced the city to wait. 

In 2003, the Arts and Music Center bought the building for $1 from the city. Since then the group has invested $5 million to stabilize the building, including $1.5 million to replace the concrete floor in the drill hall in front of the old stage. 

Developer George Sherman, who recently redeveloped the historic NorShor Theatre in downtown Duluth, said he first walked through the building nearly 20 years ago, and decided to pass. He didn’t think the building could be saved. 

But Sherman said the time is right for the project. It will feature a large commercial kitchen and food hall, office and business space, and a restoration of the historic Armory stage. 

A poster with a hand-written message
A poster with a hand-written message, recounting a quote by Bob Dylan about the Duluth Armory, sits on the old stage at the historic armory on Dec. 20.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"We're looking forward to bands, local musicians and local performers filling that stage three or four times a week,” Sherman said. 

But Sherman said the development proposal hinges on a $7.5 million contribution from the state legislature. The restoration of the NorShor Theatre, completed in 2017, received a similar state contribution.  

“It’s about a third of the overall capital,” Sherman said. “We're going to be bringing historic equity, new market tax credit, private equity, and fundraising. They all matter.”

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said she’s already talking to state officials to build support for the project. 

“This is a very Duluth space,” Larson said. “What we do here is we work hard, we work with our hands, we tell stories, we share music, we cook for each other, we spend time together. That is the space that has been envisioned here.”

Sherman estimates 12 months of fundraising, architectural drawing and bidding. If construction starts as anticipated a year from January, he said the new facility could open in June 2024.