Steps from Lake Superior is Duluth, Minnesota's historic NorShor Theater.
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NorShor Theater/Temple Opera House

"Missed Chances," continued.

'Botticelli-like' nude bas-relief in NorShor main hall.
In the NorShor's main theater, two sculptured medallions
hold larger-than-life-sized paintings reminiscent of Botticelli.

The nonprofit that Ringsred and Kahn have claimed owned the building was dissolved by the state in 1998.

Instead of designing a rehabilitation plan for the NorShor and drumming up financial support, Ringsred has opted to lease the building to a series of managers, including George Munch Jr., a convicted criminal from California who conducted business with Ringsred in 1986 from a Los Angeles County jail.

The outcome? Ten unprofitable management teams and half a dozen closures in the 24 years Ringsred has controlled the building.

After an eight-month closure for fire code violations, the NorShor re-opened Thursday for a Homegrown Music Festival concert. Now it will open only for what Ringsred describes as "special occasions."

Ringsred said he has given up on the building as a cultural hub -- or even a venue for alternative art and music.

"I think Eric does need to take responsibility for the success of that building," City Councilor Don Ness said. "He needs to be willing to make the difficult decisions necessary to ensure success."

Track Record of Inaction

For decades, locals have waxed poetic about preserving the historic theater at 211 E. Superior St., which was redesigned in 1940 by celebrated Art Deco architect Jack Liebenberg.

There is no question the theater's features are rare and beautiful. A bas-relief depicting Duluth industry. Botticelli-esque paintings. Every detail speaks to Art Deco's streamlined elegance.

Continued below »

Duluth News-Tribune article, part 5; bas-relief depicting Duluth industry.
A bas-relief in the mezzanine depicts Duluth industry.

'Botticelli-like' reliefs adorn the NorShor Theater main hall

A look at the main theater illustrates former manager Craig Samborski's assessment that whoever wants to revive the NorShor would require a 'war chest.' "Otherwise it's just making excuses to patrons who say things like, 'It's cold in here,' " he said. "All you can say is, 'Yup, it's cold in here.' "

NorShor Theater main hall ceilingMeanwhile, the NorShor's condition continues to deteriorate. Chunks of carpet are duct-taped to the main theater's floor. A rusty hole in the theater's false ceiling drips red water, which is eating away at the seats below. The Zeppa Foundation's feasibility study found it would cost $2.2 million just to catch up on basic deferred maintenance.

The building's worth goes beyond local sentiment. Architecture historians such as Glensheen Mansion Director Wade Lawrence see the NorShor as "a historic gold mine."

Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has said the NorShor must be saved. In the city's 2004 preservation study, the theater was singled out as a potential cornerstone of heritage tourism. Many of Liebenberg's other theaters are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Similar refurbished historic theaters in the Midwest have relied heavily on grants and foundation money. But NorShor owners haven't pursued grants.

In 2004, Moe, the nation's most powerful preservationist toured the NorShor with a group of residents that included Kahn. Moe said he wanted to provide $500,000 for restoration if the community could match it. Nothing ever happened.

On another occasion, Rob Link at A & L Development offered a connection he had at the McKnight Foundation. "I'm not sure why it never went anywhere," Ringsred said. "I think we were all supposed to do some homework and I don't think we did."

In 2005, the Zeppa Foundation hired Wagner Zaun Architecture and Scalzo Architects, both Duluth firms, to assess the building and draft a feasibility study.

Keir Johnson, the foundation's executive director, and Ness said they spent hours negotiating with Ringsred. Both concluded Ringsred wasn't putting in much effort.

Ringsred said he and his wife, Deborah, didn't like the Zeppa's vision of breaking the theater up into smaller bars and theaters. "She said if they're going to buy it and divide it up, there's going to be a high price on it, because saving this place the way it is has been so much of our lives," Ringsred said.

Johnson said the foundation never made an offer. "He (Ringsred) wanted several million dollars for the purchase price," Johnson said. "I could tell he didn't really want to do it. That was OK. It wasn't the right fit for what we wanted to do."

Instead, the foundation bought the former St. Louis County Health Department building just down the block at 222 E. Superior St.

Ness characterized the failed deal as a missed opportunity.

"The foundation's plan for the building was to retain a focus on local theater, art and music. I doubt there will ever be another buyer interested in investing significant resources into that building who will have that commitment," Ness said. "In my mind, the foundation was the ideal buyer, at the ideal time, with the ideal vision and values for the facility."

Ringsred said he would sell the NorShor, if the buyer agreed to a covenant for historic preservation.

"Missed Chances," conclusion »



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