Aug. 9, 2006
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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."
"It's a short-term sacrifice for the long-term
goal of bringing that beautiful space back to what it should be,"
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
"This isn't something we'd want to let go,"
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