Old Zelda Theatre gets another makeover

MPPL Financial President Scott Wallschlaeger stands outside 309 W. Superior St., the old Zelda Theatre building.

The NorShor isn’t the only historic theater seeing a new life in downtown Duluth.

MPPL Financial purchased the former Zelda Theatre in December and plans to move its operations from a historic bank building in Proctor to 309 W. Superior St. this summer. Renovations are underway both inside the heavily altered building and outside on Superior Street, where the city of Duluth recently launched a major road reconstruction project.

The building had been home to Peterson Anderson Flowers since the 1980s.

According to the website cinematreasures.org, the Zelda Theatre was constructed in 1914. It was designed by architects Wangenstein and Guliuson for owner W.M. Abrahamson, who named the building after a daughter. A University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library photo shows the building once boasted a marble facade, a grand second story archway and 15-foot high pillars framing the entrance.

“Unfortunately, almost nothing is left of the original building,” said MPPL president Scott Wallschlaeger. “It’s really a shame because the front of the building was amazing.”

According to the Duluth history website zenithcity.com, the theater closed in 1927, becoming the Zelda Inn and later Boyce Drug Store.

Building contractors have uncovered several artifacts from its days as an early 20th Century show place. Old ticket stubs were found in a basement filled with interior demolition rubble and a projection room was discovered behind a top-floor wall. The room was still posted with a 1925 permit to serve “light beer and spirits.”

The Zelda Theatre as it looked in 1919.

Old theater tickets were found in the basement amidst a pile of rubble.

Wallschlaeger called the discoveries exciting and said he’s looking for more to create a lobby display using the old movie-theater artifacts.

“I love history,” he said. “We’re moving from one historic building to another, and that’s what we wanted to do. History gives you a real sense of place, I kind of have a passion for it.”

MPPL Financial, which is based in Wausau, has located its Duluth-area offices in the old First National Bank of Proctor building for 14 years. The bank was established in 1902 and a clock remains above the front door.

Wallschlaeger said the branch now has six employees and has outgrown the Proctor location. “We’ve been growing very rapidly,” he said. “Our newest advisor had no place to go so we had to cut a hole in the bank vault to make space. That’s 16-inches of a concrete reinforced bank vault.”

MPPL Financial is investing $800,000 in Zelda Theatre renovations. The project will create nine new offices and two conference rooms. A second floor mezzanine has been added along with new restrooms and other infrastructure.

A second floor has been added to the interior of the old Zelda Theatre building.

The building will also have a new road in front of it.

The city of Duluth launched the first of a three-phase, $31.5-million Superior Street reconstruction project in April. Large piles of dirt now sit outside the future MPPL Financial offices instead of parked cars.

Wallschlaeger said downtown business owners are jokingly calling him “the crazy guy who’s moving in during construction.”

Superior Street construction between Third Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue will replace the 30-year-old roadway and underground utilities — some dating back to the 19th Century. Traffic will be detoured around the four-block stretch until October completion. Two more phases are planned to the east in 2019 and 2020.

Wallschlaeger said the project should not have a major impact on his business. Financial planners are not typically reliant on passing traffic and MPPL Financial has secured dedicated customer parking in the Phoenix lot, which connects to the Skywalk system.

“This is the financial center of Duluth and we wanted to be in the center of it,” he said. “We wanted to put down our roots here.”

Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said Duluth Fine Pianos also recently relocated to Superior Street. She said existing businesses are confident they can survive the construction storm.

“We have to lift (MPPL Financial) up as a great example,” she said. “They are investing in downtown even with the construction going on. That’s a great sign.”

The first phase of the three-phase $31.5 million Superior Street reconstruction project is underway between Third Avenue West to Mesaba Avenue.

Stokes said Superior Street sidewalks will remain open during construction and nearby parking ramps offer up to one hour of free parking. Extensive signing will help people navigate detours and parking.

A website, superiorstreet.org, has been established to provide construction updates, road closures, detour routes and other information.

Stokes said MPPL Financial and other Superior Street businesses know a new roadway will benefit Duluth in the long run.

“Everything looked tired,” she said. “This is going to bring a refreshing change, it’s revitalizing our downtown.”

MPPL Financial is currently located in an old bank building in downtown Proctor.


Aaron Kelly

about 2 years ago

Who are the new architects, engineers, and general contractor on the job? That's who "gives it a fresh look." We love to recognize 100-year-old architects and get all nostalgic but I'd really like to see our local media do a better job of communicating who the (hopefully local) design talent is that makes the dreams a reality in stories like this. Cool space!


about 2 years ago

Aaron, I agree. We had a great LOCAL team to help us make this a reality. Heather Hiner from Hiner Home design and Greg Strom from Foundations architecture helped us with the planning and Max from Donald Holm Construction helped with planning and was the general that put it all together with so many good subs. Can’t say enough good things about them all. They did amazing work. Grand opening after the street is open this fall. Stop down to see us sometime.

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