Community members push to restore Duluth Armory

The Armory Arts and Music Center (AAMC), is planning to restore the Duluth Armory. Photo Credit: Holly Nelson Susan Phillips’ eyes lit up with pride during a tour of the vacant Duluth National Guard Armory as she told the infamous story of a young Bob Dylan in attendance at what would be Buddy Holly’s last performance.

“Their eyes locked, and the torch was passed on,” said Phillips, the president of the Armory Arts and Music Center (AAMC) group and Bob Dylan fanatic, ending one of the many striking stories she had to share about the historic Duluth Armory.

Recently, Phillips and Mark Poirier, vice president of AAMC, shared the building’s rich and untold stories and their dream to restore the site to its original splendor as a multi-purpose community center once again.

Today the building remains empty. The only music one can hear are the sounds of feet as they walk across old floor boards.

Crowds can no longer be seen flocking into the building like they once did. Instead, it remains locked from the public behind a chain link fence.

However, the rich stories Phillips and Poirier eagerly told made the building come alive.

Phillips expressed her profound passion for Dylan and the Duluth Armory after sharing the importance of Dylan’s 1998 Grammy acceptance speech in which he acknowledged the effect the Buddy Holly show in Duluth had on him.

“The great moment was that Dylan never talks,” said Phillips while describing the Dylan acceptance speech. “Everyone just sat there with their mouths open in Duluth.”

Not only are the two invested in the building’s historical significance but they are also very interested in restoring the site as a community center once again.

“This is where the community gathered,” said Poirier, who is also the architect in charge of the restoration plans. “It was the DECC before the DECC.”

The Drill Hall is the performance venue in the building where Dylan and the many other famous performers' once performed. Photo Credit: Holly NelsonPoirier said he has a personal interest in the project due to his previous experience working as a preservation advocate while serving on the American Institute of Architects’ Historic Resources Committee.

“I’m sick of things getting torn down,” said Poirier. “It could be so much more.”

Mark will be taking a six month leave of absence from his job at LHB, a Duluth architectural firm, in order to focus entirely on the Armory, which he refers to as a “grassroots community project.”

The non-profit group was formed 10 years ago when Phillips learned of the city’s plans to demolish the Armory. At the time, Phillips was accepting an award from the Duluth Preservation Alliance group for the work she had done on her own house.

“We fought every developer who wanted to tear it down,” said Phillips.

Phillips shared the story of how she and her team of volunteer preservationists were able to prevent the Armory from being demolished thanks to a unique discovery in her historic Duluth home.

Phillips’ house was built around 1912 and only barely preceded the Duluth Armory’s opening in 1915. After moving in, Susan found a box of keepsakes from the previous owner that contained original programs from Duluth Armory performances.

“The box helped us get our national register eligibility,” said Phillips.

The programs provided the proof necessary that the site had always been used as a performance venue. With that information, the Armory was able to obtain recognition on the National Register of Historic Places list. With this recognition, the AAMC was able to receive historic tax breaks which made the project affordable.

“It was always supposed to be something for the community,” said Poirier.

In fact, it was common for armories built in the early 1900s to have a civic function. However, the Duluth Armory was unique in that it cost five times the amount of the average armory, according to Poirier.

For many years, Duluth’s Armory was a more well-known music hub than any performance center in the Twin Cities due to its well-regarded visits and performances from people such as Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, The Beach Boys, and many more.

“If they played Chicago, they played Duluth,” said Phillips.

During its lifetime, the historic Duluth Armory not only saw many great shows, but it also served as the site for many historic Duluth events. Some of these undertold stories include the funeral of the last surviving Civil War Union soldier, the temporary housing the Armory provided for community members during the infamous Cloquet fires, and the site for the 125th Artillery training, the unit that saw more action than any other unit during World War II.

“I think its got a great story with a great location,” said Poirier.

Before continuing with construction plans, Poirier and Phillips have to find a user to lease the 35,000 square feet of commercial space. The space includes four floors on the Lake Superior and London Road side of the building. Poirier and Phillips feel the space’s location directly across from the Duluth Rose Garden will provide for a high-traffic commercial area in addition to a beautiful surrounding.

“Never underestimate what a small group of people can do,” added Poirier.

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