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Duluth Armory

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Colorized postcard of the Duluth Armory, c.1920.

Postcard of the Duluth Armory, c.1920.

The Duluth Armory has served as both a military training facility and an entertainment venue since its construction in 1915. Notable for its neoclassical design, the armory was central to the work of the National Guard and Home Guard. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Duluth was a growing Midwestern hub. Its population was rising, its economy was booming, and military activity was becoming more important. In 1899, Minnesota established a naval reserve. Soon, Duluth’s new naval militia and its National Guard companies no longer fit in the city’s 1896 armory. By 1913, the city had decided to replace it.

The new Duluth Armory officially opened in November 1915. Local architects Clyde W. Kelly and Owen J. Williams’ design broke with the tradition of earlier armory styles in Minnesota. Instead of using the castle-like features seen in the St. Peter Armory, for example, the architects opted for Beaux-Arts classicism. The sleek and simple style was a prime example of the new era of armory design. The building, with over 107,000 interior square feet, was the biggest armory in the state. It had living quarters for Guardsmen, offices, training facilities, and public event space.

Duluth’s National Guardsmen went overseas when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. To protect citizens and resources at home, Minnesota created the Home Guard. Home Guard units, including those based in the armory, were called to action twice during the course of the war. They organized relief efforts when a tornado hit the city of Tyler and after a wildfire tore through the northeastern part of the state.

Despite the economic slump of the Great Depression, the 1930s and early 1940s saw some of the armory’s biggest changes. The building received a $95,896 addition through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Plans provided for a stage, classrooms, and kitchen. Local laborers finished the project in 1941.

As the country’s furthest inland port, Duluth prepared the armory for possible attack during World War II with blackout screens and lightproof paint. A Minnesota State Guard formed to carry out civil defense. Its men, named the “Monday Night Soldiers,” met at the armory once a week for training.

While military activity was the initial concern of the Duluth Armory, the building has hosted social and cultural events since it opened. Its early years saw an automobile show, charity events, and regular expos and conventions.

Famous public figures and performers drew crowds to the armory. President Harry Truman, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave speeches. John Philip Sousa’s marching band performed in January 1920, and the New York Philharmonic came in 1921. The Duluth Civic Symphony Orchestra, started in 1925, held its annual concert series at the armory.

By the middle of the century, big-name acts were common. Johnny Cash, Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Sonny and Cher, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the Beach Boys all entertained Duluth from the armory’s stage.

In January 1959, Buddy Holly performed at the armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour. He was killed in a plane crash only a few days later. One member of the young crowd that night was a teenage Bob Dylan. Dylan recalled the show when he accepted the 1998 Album of the Year Grammy Award for Time Out of Mind. Standing in the armory audience and catching Holly’s eye, he said, was an experience that stayed with him.

The prosperity of the post-war years prompted many states to tear down their out-of-date armories and build modern facilities. In 1963, Duluth built a new center for its eight-hundred-man Army Reserve. Three years later, it built the Duluth Arena-Auditorium. The two new buildings made the armory less sought-after for military and entertainment purposes. By the late 1970s, it had become a storage facility for maintenance vehicles.

After years of vacancy and little upkeep, demolition was planned for the armory in 2001. The threat spurred both local and statewide preservationists into action. The Armory Arts and Music Center, a non-profit committed to continuing the legacy of the armory as a hub of entertainment and civic life, bought the building in 2004.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Duluth Armory, National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Editor’s Note: This nomination file was the main source used in the writing of this article.

Related Images

Colorized postcard of the Duluth Armory, c.1920.
Colorized postcard of the Duluth Armory, c.1920.
Black and white photograph of Duluth’s Third Regiment Armory, a predecessor of the larger National Guard armory built in 1915. Photographed by Hugh McKenzie c. 1915.
Black and white photograph of Duluth’s Third Regiment Armory, a predecessor of the larger National Guard armory built in 1915. Photographed by Hugh McKenzie c. 1915.
Color image of the front façade of the Head House of the Duluth Armory, 2010.
Color image of the front façade of the Head House of the Duluth Armory, 2010.

Turning Point

In 1941, local laborers complete a Works Progress Administration-funded construction project that adds a stage, classrooms, and a kitchen to the armory.



Duluth builds its original National Guard Armory.


Minnesota establishes a Naval Reserve, with two divisions in Duluth.


Public interest in a new armory grows.


Duluth builds a new armory. The city holds a grand opening celebration on November 22.


Minnesota establishes the Home Guard. Throughout World War I, Duluth’s Third Battalion of the Home Guard assists in local disaster-relief efforts.


Local workers begin to build a flat-roof addition to the armory with funding from the WPA.


The Minnesota State Guard forms as a response to World War II. Its men begin to meet weekly at the armory.


Buddy Holly performs to a Duluth Armory crowd that includes a young Bob Dylan.


Duluth Arena-Auditorium (now Duluth Entertainment Convention Center) is built, creating competition with the armory for event bookings.


The City of Duluth purchases the armory for $160,000. It uses the Head House for municipal offices and the Drill Hall as a garage for maintenance vehicles.


Demolition of the armory is slated for September 2001.


The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota lists the armory on its “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places” list.


A Duluth non-profit group, the Armory Arts and Music Center, buys the building from the city for one dollar.


The Minnesota Historic Structure Rehabilitation State Tax Credit is established, creating a potential funding source for redevelopment of the armory.


The Duluth Armory is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.