Denfeld News

Aug. 9, 2006
Duluth News Tribune

Return to splendor
By Sarah Horner

Built in 1926, the Denfeld Auditorium was designed to be much more than a school auditorium.

"The word that pops into my head is 'neoclassical,'" Denfeld social studies teacher Tom Tusken said. "As far as you might see in other auditoriums, which have substantially more modern architecture, this one is very ornate, like an opera house out of a different time period."

Today the auditorium that has hosted artists such as Louis Armstrong and Ed Sullivan looks far from ornate. Scaffolding and tarps dominate the historic chamber as work is under way to restore it to its glory of 80 years ago.

The 2,000-seat space boasts an orchestra pit, pipe organ, full balcony and a bowled floor providing an unobstructed view of the stage from every seat in the house, Tusken said.

Denfeld High School was designed by the architectural firm Holm- stead & Sullivan, which modeled it after buildings on the Harvard and Oxford campuses. The school cost $1.25 million to build; the auditorium cost $25,000.

A separate auditorium entrance at the corner of 44th Avenue West and Fourth Street gave people access without entering the school, emphasizing the architects' intention that the space be a community asset.

In its prime, lush maroon drapes hung over doors and windows and 72-bulb brass and steel chandeliers gleamed. Carvings of gargoyles, eagles, women, grapevines and the Denfeld crest decorated the plaster.

"It was just gorgeous," Denfeld economics teacher Joe Vukelich said. "The only other school in Minnesota that would compare is Hibbing."

But gorgeous was probably not the first word to come to mind for visitors to the auditorium in recent years.

A leaking roof led to water damage to the auditorium's interior plasterwork, paint, pipe organ, draperies and woodwork, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for Duluth Public Schools.

The once-magnificent space was draped with caution tape warning people away from seats under threat of decaying, loose plaster.

"This auditorium has been an asset to the district and the community with a lot of tradition attached to it," Leider said, noting the countless concerts and Denfeld Maroon and Gold Days that have taken place within its walls. "Its historical nature and unique features deserve to be restored."

About $1.2 million will be poured from the district's budget into the endeavor, which includes re-creating the auditorium's original plasterwork, repainting, refinishing woodwork, replacing the drapes with new ones made to match the old, and cleaning and rewiring the chandeliers, Leider said.

A separate fundraising effort to restore the auditorium's pipe organ also is under way.

The auditorium's restoration began in late June when workers laid scaffolding and decking about8 feet from the auditorium's ceiling.

The deck allows workers to get close enough to the plaster to make rubber molds of the original work, Custom Drywall foreman Phil Anderson said.

The molds are laid over intact areas of plasterwork and then filled with new plaster that will later be used to recreate dilapidated portions, Anderson said.

Small carving tools are used to finish up the details.

"The existing plaster is in exceptionally good shape," he said. "Those detail lines make it a lot easier for us to replicate the designs in the missing areas."

When the project is complete in December, it will be like traveling back in time, Anderson said.

Denfeld alum Patty Langlee said the project is long overdue.

"It's looked pretty tacky with all the tape and seat coverings for the past years," she said. "It's been sad to watch it fall apart."

Langlee's father also graduated from Denfeld and her son, Brian, is entering his senior year.

Brian, a member of Denfeld's show choir, jazz band and wind ensemble, is no stranger to the auditorium.

"His life is entertaining," Langlee said. "It's too bad that he won't get to use it for most of his last year, but we'll take what we can get. That space was designed to be a magnificent venue. It deserves to be preserved."

Tusken agreed.

"It's a short-term sacrifice for the long-term goal of bringing that beautiful space back to what it should be," he said.

The auditorium's historic value to the community is what makes it a worthy candidate for restoration, Leider said, regardless of whether the district eventually decides to close the school. A long-range assessment of the district's buildings is under way.

"This isn't something we'd want to let go," he said.

The school's roof also is being replaced to protect the restored space from water damage. The new roof should last 80 to 100 years.

"I am excited to be a part of this project," Leider said. "I think my feelings parallel those of the rest of the community. This auditorium is a treasure."

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