St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center’s Historic Union Depot
By Shirley Bergum

(Chapter 24 from The Will and the Way, published by Manley Goldfine and Donn Larson, 2004)

It was 1964 and the Junior League of Duluth was looking for a new project. My husband (Robert Bergum) suggested we find a use for the vacant Soo Line Depot, a stately old terminal that stood proudly on the site now occupied by the Gateway Tower apartment building on Sixth Avenue West.

The league required a formal request for such an undertaking, so I contacted my friend at the St. Louis County Historical Society and asked for such a request. When the response came from their board of directors, it asked the Junior League to “conduct a feasibility study on the use of the Soo Line Depot for some educational or cultural purpose.” At that time, I was on the board of the A.M. Chisholm Children’s Museum and also volunteering at the St. Louis County Historical Society, so I was well aware of the limitations they were both experiencing due to cramped quarters. The idea of a join museum seemed natural. I asked both boards to cooperate. They agreed, but refused to say yes. They would study and consider it.

In the spring of 1966, the brand new State Arts Council gave the Junior League a grant to pay for half of the study. This was the first grant the Arts Council gave to northern Minnesota and the first grant to our project.

By the time the study was completed, the Art Institute and the Duluth Playhouse (formerly the Little Theatre) had been added to the plans. It was apparent that the Soo Line Depot was not large enough. At about that time, the chateauesque French Norman Union Depot – designed by Peabody & Stearns and completed in 1893 for about $600,000 – was vacated. The Union Depot on Michigan Street was larger and more architecturally significant, so we picked up our plans, changed buildings and started all over. A big advantage to this location was that we could have active trackage for a railroad museum. Returning to the word “cultural” used in the original request, plans continued to grow as did the committee which started with five Junior League members and a $25 budget and expanded to about 20 members including representatives of the involved organizations, civic groups, as well as civically minded citizens who operated under the name Interim Cultural Center Committee (ICCC). Next, the Civic Ballet and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra joined us, and architectural studies started in earnest.

Negotiations with the Northern Pacific Railroad started in 1968, but hit a snag when they broke off all talks because they were involved in a merger with Burlington Railroad
(CB&Q*). However, we kept planning with faith in the future. From 1964 on, I met with civic leaders and organizations throughout the area “selling” the concept of a cultural center in the heart of Duluth. Many listened to me, but some said it would never work, which only made Jean Walker (my good right arm) and me more determined than ever. During this delayed and somewhat discouraging period, Jean and I traveled to five different cultural and art centers, gleaning ideas and recommendations for ours until talks resumed with the newly formed Burlington Northern.

In 1969, the ICCC incorporated under the name Area Cultural Center Corporation (ACCC) and signed an option to purchase the property in June of 1970. We succeeded in getting the building designated a National Historic Landmark and began the very difficult job of drawing up bylaws.

This proved to be a lesson in patience and diplomacy in order to convince the organizations they could live together without losing their autonomy, and yes, the large areas could indeed by shared. One more problem arose: although the Union Depot was indeed larger than the Soo Line, it was not adequate to house all our plans for the seven organizations involved. Therefore, new plans were drawn for an addition to be built on the western side of the building to house the Duluth Playhouse, Civic Ballet and an auditorium to seat about 300 people.

The ACCC exercised its option in November 1971, and agreed to pay the Burlington Northern, Inc. $87,500 for the old depot and a 400-foot strip of land (which included railroad tracks and two canopies). Fundraising began in earnest. At this time, the Railroad Museum, which had been considered part of the historical exhibits, became a separate organization under the name Lake Superior Museum of Transportation and Industry and work on the track was started. (Today it is one of the largest railroad museums in the United States with active trackage.) This area was the first completed because of a grant from the Economic Development Authority, which required that the grant cover a complete project. While large enough to complete the Rail Museum area, it would not pay for renovation of the Depot.

Although the “official” opening is listed as 1977, by 1975 engines and cars were moved into the Rail Museum and both the Chisholm and Historical Society Museums and offices were moved in and programming in the Great Hall and lower level were taking place. The Art Institute had displays on the balcony and was providing classes. Hammers and saws resounded through the building at what is known as Depot Square, an area on two sides of the Rail Museum depicting life at the turn of the century in Duluth, including an ice cream parlor, theater front, doctor’s office, bank, and general store, utilizing a lot of exhibit items from the museums.

*Chicago Burlington and Quincy, the old official name of the Burlington.

The musical “Cabaret” opened the new Playhouse year in the new auditorium in the spring of 1977.**

Ownership of the Depot and adjacent property was transferred to St. Louis County and the name changed from Union Depot Center to St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center. With completion of construction, it was time to look forward. Elizabeth Adams (John) stepped forward to organize the Depot Foundation. In her words: “Now that we have the center, we need to have a foundation to protect it.” She set out to raise $1 million and succeeded. Today, the Depot Foundation has an endowment of over $5 million to protect the Depot and assist the organizations housed there.

Our dream for the center was to offer something for everyone through a variety of programs and displays. It never ceased to amaze me how interest in our cultural center continued to grow over all the long years of planning. Our Depot and our success story were featured at a National Symposium on “Reusing Railroad Stations” held in Indianapolis in 1974, which I attended as a panelist. It was an exhilarating experience. I was one of four participants who had been through the launching process; we were introduced as a you-can-do-it-too-if-you-work-hard foursome.

Through the years, volunteers were always there. Junior League members with crowbars and station wagons tore out pieces of the Lyceum Theatre before it was demolished (some were used by the Depot, some not). The company razing the building at my request saved the large stone comedy and tragedy masks from the front, which now adorn the entrance to our auditorium. To save money where we could, board members of the organizations with spouses and friends spent two days tearing out the false ceiling and partitions added through the years and the National Guard came with trucks and hauled away the debris while food was brought in by local businesses. Attorneys and architects donated time and grants came from the Economic Development Authority, Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission, Arts & Humanities, Historical Restoration and area businesses and foundations.

Today, the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center is home to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum & the North Shore Scenic Railroad, the Duluth Playhouse, the Duluth Children’s Museum, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Duluth Art Institute and the St. Louis County Historical Society.

*The Duluth Playhouse celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2003. It is the oldest continuously operating community theatre in Minnesota

Through the years, I served as chairman of the Junior League feasibility study with Jean Walker (Donald), Polly Harlow (Fred), Sue McDonald (Blake), Julia Marshall and Dorothy Congdon (Robert). With the ICCC, I was co-chairman with William Stephenson Sr., Donald Shank, Frank Young and William O’Brien were instrumental in negotiations to acquire the property. The ACCC changed presidents every two years. Frank Young, Robert Rich, Eugene Lambert and Sylvester Laskin served in this capacity. I was secretary those eight years. Next was raising money. I wrote many of the grant applications under the instruction from Dr. Robert Heller, Robert Rich and Jack Arnold and with the help of William Moser. When the Depot opened, I was executive secretary and administrative assistant.

I must add that literally hundreds of Duluthians helped over the years through boards and committees to make the center a reality. Many changes have taken place, but the initial dream stays the same. The organizations continue to strive to live together peacefully and cooperatively.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role over 13 years to work on this project and to see it evolve into the true center of history and culture it is today and I am thankful for all those who are continuing to help it adapt, survive and grow.