The Wieland Block – The Jewel of a Downtown Duluth Revival

DULUTH, Minn. – What 19th century architect designed buildings in both Hawaii and Minnesota? The answer is Oliver G. Traphagen. After leaving Minnesota for Hawaii in 1896,

Wieland Block, Duluth, Minnesota
Wieland Block, Duluth, Minnesota

Traphagen designed one of the most beloved buildings in Hawaii—The Moana Hotel. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is referred to as “The First Lady of Waikiki.”

Although many Hawaiians and Waikiki tourists appreciate the Moana building, few know that Traphagen honed his skills 4000 miles away in Duluth or, that one of his first designs—the Weiland Block—is not only still standing, but has been rehabilitated to its original splendor.

Built in 1889, and located in a National Register of Historic Places District, the Weiland Block is a four-story building that started out as a furniture store. During Traphagen’s fifteen years in Duluth, he created several Richardsonian Romanesque structures, and elements of this movement (and the fundamentals of his later projects) are clearly captured in the Weiland Block’s façade: use of rough-hewn stone, semi-arches over window clusters, and thick, rusticated columns. The Weiland Block is historically significant in that it predates Traphagen’s other Duluth buildings, including First Presbyterian Church, Chester Terrace, Munger Terrace, and the Traphagen House, which, like the Moana Hotel, is in the National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, the Weiland Block, along with the two-story adjoining Hayes building (named for original owner Rutherford B. Hayes), was subject to numerous re-models and neglect. When A & L Properties of Duluth purchased the buildings, they were confronted by compromised roofs, broken windows, filthy exteriors, and mountains of trash.

The outer walls of both buildings have been saved, but windows, roofs, floors, and mechanical systems had to be upgraded, including HVAC, plumbing, and electrical. Elevators were added for ADA accessibility. The main lobby of the Weiland Block has been re-created, with small, hexagon tile flooring, coffered ceilings, wood-wrapped columns, and full-transom windows. “We preserved whatever historical features remained, such as the beautiful tin ceiling in the Hayes building,” says Rich Noble of A & L Properties.  “But much of the original interiors were destroyed years ago.”

A & L Properties has invested $15 million dollars into this project, and has benefited from low-interest loans via the storefront loan program. “We worked with local preservation groups to get their approval, and used photographs of the building to restore the storefronts—even those on the backside that had been converted to garage doors,” says Noble.

The Weiland Block is so valued, that when workers washed the exterior, people expressed concern that the brick was being painted. In truth, workers were simply removing a century of pollution. Approximately 50% of the brick had to be tuck pointed. The building now looks as it did in 1889: strikingly rust-colored, with original terra cotta and carved sandstone highlights.

A & L rehabilitated the Weiland Block and Hayes building as Phase I of a larger project. Phase II is an addition/expansion that will showcase the Weiland Block as a jewel of this National Register of Historic Places district.