A look inside UMD’s Old Main, 1980

April 3, 1980

Old Main on the University of Minnesota Duluth’s lower campus, April 1980. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

Weathered Old Main silent, almost empty

By Doug Smith, News-Tribune

The long, dark halls of UMD’s Old Main are mostly silent these days.

Footsteps echo down the high-ceilinged hallways only occasionally. Most of the classrooms are empty.

The four-story brick and stone building, built in 1901, sits solemnly in disrepair, a victim of old age. The building, the oldest at UMD, is one of four on the lower campus on Fifth Street.

Outside, its once-handsome brick face and stonework are crumbling. Wooden snow fences keep students back a safe distance in case something falls off the building.

Inside, plaster from crumbling ceilings lies on classroom floors.

“It’s going to pieces,” said Ernie Anderson, UMD maintenance and operations supervisor.

Few Old Main classrooms are in use. This is one that has fallen victim to the ravages of time. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

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Anderson, 60, has coddled the building for 33 years – since it became part of the university system.

“It’s where I started,” he said Wednesday, peering down an empty hall.

Old Main and the other buildings of UMD’s lower campus once housed Duluth State College, Duluth State Teachers College and the Duluth Normal School. Ernie remembers the exact day the campus became UMD: July 1, 1947.

Now Old Main contains some federal and county offices as well as overflow university offices. Some slightly remodeled classrooms also are used, Ernie said.

Although in disrepair, Old Main retains some of its pride. Oak wainscoting, as shiny and solid as when students traipsed by decades ago, still graces hallway walls. There is an aura of dignity about it all.

Halls in UMD’s Old Main no longer see the traffic they did during most of the building’s history. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

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But there is major work to be done if Old Main is to live again.

“The windows are all in bad shape,” Ernie said, unlocking a door to one room. “The wind blow right through. The roof is leaking and the brick needs repair.”

Washrooms and radiators might need replacing. Said Ernie, “The money involved to fix it up would be fierce.”

Because of a pollution problem with the existing heating plant, the university must first decide if it will continue to use the lower campus. The other three lower campus buildings, the Research Laboratory building, Torrance Hall and Washburn Hall, are used more extensively than Old Main.

“What are you going to do with (Old Main)?” Ernie asked, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s a big decision.”

Ernie said he isn’t sentimentally attached to Old Main, although hundreds of former students may be. “I’ve got a lot of other buildings to worry about,” he said.

But strolling around the building Wednesday, Ernie couldn’t help but admire it.

“It’s a pretty building,” he said.

Sunlight reflects off an upper window at UMD’s Old Main in April 1980. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

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UMD maintenance and operations supervisor Ernie Anderson in front of the coal-fired furnaces at Old Main in April 1980. (Photos by Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

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UMD closed and boarded up Old Main in September 1985, and officials announced their intent to tear it down. Within a few months, however, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the next few years various deals and discussions about the building made the news, interspersed with timelines for its demolition.

Old Main in January 1989. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

In 1989 there were talks about swapping Old Main with the Duluth school district for the Chester Park Elementary School building adjacent to the upper campus; the school district intended to raze Old Main and build a new elementary school on the site.

Other ideas called for keeping the building, and converting it into senior housing or a community college.

In November 1992, Duluth’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved a plan to develop Old Main into a 49-unit apartment building, with a 100-car, two-level parking ramp built into the hillside behind Old Main. Developer George Hoene had an option to purchase Old Main and adjacent Torrance Hall from UMD for $1.

Then, three months later, on Feb. 23, 1993, Old Main went up in flames….

Developer George Hoene looks in a rear window of the gutted shell of Old Main on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1993. He had planned to convert the building into apartments. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Redevelopment plan goes up in smoke

By Anne Bretts, News-Tribune

A friend with a police scanner called developer George Hoene minutes after the first fire alarm came in at 12:32 a.m. Tuesday.

Hoene could see the flames as he dashed the few blocks from his home to the scene. He stayed most of the night, one of more than 100 onlookers who watched helplessly as fire raged through Old Main, the landmark that formed the heart of the former University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

As the others saw the past go up in smoke, the 31-year-old developer saw the future disappear in the flames.

“God, we were so close,” he said later Tuesday, returning to the site to see what was left of the massive brick building at 23rd Avenue East and Fifth Street.

As he walked around the charred brick skeleton, Hoene explained how he was about a week away from a formal ceremony launching a $3 million effort to turn the abandoned college classrooms into 45 apartments.

Concentrating on the massive walls that were still standing and ignoring the twisted wreckage inside them, he talked about the detail in the stonework, now blackened by smoke and dripping with ice. …

Tuesday’s fire left the interior of Old Main gutted, and the exterior walls charred. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Hoene said he first talked with university officials about renovating Old Main in 1988, but the idea was put on hold while UMD unsuccessfully tried to sell the building for a public elementary school and later a community college.

By the time the university was ready to move ahead, the financing had been stalled by the recession, Hoene said. Three months ago Tuesday, Hoene toured Old Main once again and decided the timing was right.

“Interest rates were down,” he said. “This was the year to do it.”

On Tuesday, Hoene called the prospects for continuing the renovation very unlikely. …

Hoene agrees with fire department officials in suspecting arson as the cause of the fire, which they believe started in the west end of the building at least an hour before it was reported.

“It was seriously burning when we got here,” assistant Fire Chief Donald Kivisto said Tuesday.

“It was frightening,” said Paul Osterlund, a neighbor who watched as the inferno spewed ashes and burning debris over rooftops and cars for several blocks. Osterlund credited the snow cover with keeping the airborne debris from touching off any more fires.

The 31 firefighters, five pumper trucks, two ladder trucks and two rescue units did save three other university buildings on the 7.5-acre campus, including one just 30 feet from the west end of Old Main. Two of the buildings are used for research facilities, while Torrance Hall, a former dormitory, is closed. …

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Trying to decide the fate of fire-ravaged Old Main on Feb. 26, 1993, are Duluth Mayor Gary Doty (far right) and UMD Vice Chairman for Finance and Operations Greg Fox (facing camera). They were part of a group that toured the exterior of the building to decide if anything was salvageable or worth saving. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

After a few days’ delay, during which city officials tried to find a developer who would make use of Old Main’s still-standing walls, the structure was razed with the exception of several arches, which were preserved and reinforced – and which still stand on the site, which was turned over to the city to become a park.

Three men were arrested and pleaded guilty to setting the fire.

Demolition crews started at the rear of Old Main on March 1, 1993. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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A bulldozer operator removes debris from the front of three main arches that remain standing at the site of Old Main on March 3, 1993.

For more about Old Main, the University of Minnesota Duluth has information about the building here. Also, there was a discussion about Old Main’s later years – and some unauthorized expeditions inside the then-abandoned building – a few months back on Perfect Duluth Day.

Share your memories of Old Main by posting a comment.

5 thoughts on “A look inside UMD’s Old Main, 1980

  1. When I was a puppy our family lived just a few blocks from Old Main. We were up on 6th Street a couple of houses east of Kent Road. We used to play around the Old Main and also around some buildings accessible from Kent Road. I remember one building had a “tunnel” through which passed a little creek. Spent many hours around there. I had a crush on Lisa Rosenthal who was tragically killed due to an ice sculpture collapse at the Ice Festival.

  2. I grew up near Old Main. My friends and I loved to tiptoe through the building, taking in the sight of dark woodwork and shiny floors. I recall the beautiful theater with it’s creaky wooden seats. It is unfortunate that Old Main was lost to the community.

  3. When I started UMD in the fall of 1957, all of my classes were in Old Main. The “upper” campus was being developed, but it was pretty sparse. The “new” library (which has now been replaced) opened about a year before, and Kirby Student Center was quite new, maybe two years old. Otherwise, just a Science Building and the Phi-Ed Building (now Romano gym) were all that I recall up there at the time. Old Main had a decent-sized auditorium with a full stage where most of the college’s theatrical productions were staged. A memorable production of the musical “Guys and Dolls” in 1958 or ’59 starred students Jerry Music and Myrna Johnson, who later became his wife. Jerry went to Hollywood, changed his first name to Lorenzo, and had a good career before dying a few years ago. He was the voice of Carleton the Doorman on the “Rhoda” sitcom and also the voice of Garfield the Cat in that animated series.

  4. i used to work in old main when i worked for umd years ago and that building was georgeous! it’s too bad all our old buildings can’t be kept from going to ruin! the students and kids in duluth need to see how things were, back when! if they did maybe our worlds wouldn’t be in such shambles!

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