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Creativity Calling

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MPAC in 1974

40 years ago, a building changed both the campus and learning landscapes at UMD. The Marshall Performing Arts Center, MPAC, was dedicated in 1974 and with its creation, the School of Fine Arts was born.

Before MPAC, the arts were housed in Humanities. It was an adequate setup for many years, but by the late 1960s, it became clear that music, theatre, and dance needed a home.

And like all good drama, the twists and turns in MPAC's development had its audience on the edge of its seat.

Calling on the Pillars of the Zenith City

Albert Morley
Albert Marshall
Chester Congdon
Chester Congdon

It was a nail-biting race won by four elderly women: Julia Marshall, Caroline Marshall, Jessica Marshall Spencer, and Marjorie Congdon Dudley. 

Their names may sound familiar. In Duluth, the Marshalls and the Congdons are like the Rockefellers and Carnegies, known for their generosity and followed with keen interest.

Albert Morley Marshall was the founder of the Marshall-Wells Hardware Company, a cornerstone in the Zenith City for 66 years. At one time it was the largest hardware manufacturer in the United States, yet it remained completely embedded in the Duluth community, employing hundreds and providing materials for the Twin Ports’ building boom.

The Marshall-Wells headquarters were built in 1901 and spanned 251 to 319 Lake Avenue, claiming real estate at the base of Duluth’s shipping canal four years before the iconic bridge became part of the city’s skyline.

The same year that the bridge went up, construction started on a 39-room mansion four miles up the shore. It was named Glensheen for the glen of the woods and the sheen of Lake Superior that lapped on the estate's rocky beach. This would be the home of Chester and Clara Congdon and their family.

Glensheen, one of the first homes built on London Road, exemplified Chester Congdon’s uncanny ability to seize an opportunity. He made a fortune in the Iron Range in Minnesota, copper mines in Arizona, and in orchards in Washington. His obituary listed him as the richest man in Minnesota, but he was even better known for his generosity.

Marjorie Congdon Dudley shared her dad's passion for philanthropy, generously giving to the YWCA of Duluth, and also shared his shrewd business sense. Her alma matter, Dana Hall, quotes her as saying, "Will all the seniors who have not paid their class dues please pay at once, because those bills must be paid!"

Looking through the Duluth News Tribune archives, the women's names repeatedly emerge: The Marshall sisters partnered with other Duluthians in the purchase of a large spread of St. Louis Bay’s waterfront. This gift made Bayfront Park, the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, and the Duluth Aquarium possible.

So it's only natural that when UMD faced a funding quagmire, the Marshalls emerged with a possible solution.

Idea seeks Investors

MPAC's Donors

They were half way there. In 1967, the Minnesota Legislature agreed to give UMD $500,000 for a performing arts building. The caveat? The appropriation had to be matched.

Provost Raymond Darland and Assistant Provost Robert Heller scoured their rolodexes, desperately in need of a donor. Nobody emerged. Finally, on January 31, 1968, the very last day to secure the funding, they dialed up Julia and Caroline Marshall and explained the situation.

Julia and Caroline had supported Duluth's arts organizations in the past and were artists themselves. They both painted and Julia also had a respected photography career, so the sisters were empathetic with the cause.

Darland and Heller didn't need to overstate their case. By this time, most university activities had migrated from Old Main to UMD's new campus, but, with no space on the current quad, up to four plays a year were still being performed in the original theatre about a mile down the hill.

With a need, potential donors, and a looming deadline, would they make the cut? The answer would have to wait. Julia and Caroline had their own calls to make.

Their sister, Jessica Marshall Spencer, was brought into the conversation, along with their longtime friend Marjorie Congdon Dudley. Similar to how everyday folks might split the check at a restaurant, the four graciously decided to divvy up the donation with each person giving $150,000 to UMD.

The project was saved by representatives of Duluth's cultured class, creating an institute for culture that would inspire generations.

This donation, says Bill Payne, Dean of the School of Fine Arts, goes beyond an investment in UMD. "The incredible philanthropic support by these Duluth citizens expressed their belief that art and culture was a key aspect of a thriving Duluth community. That spirit continues today."

MPAC Opens, School of Fine Arts Created

MPAC's 1974 Opening

Left to right
Dr. Robert Heller (Associate Provost), Dr. Raymond Darland (Provost), Caroline Marshall, Julia Marshall, Mrs. Jessica Marshall Spencer, and James Claypool at MPAC's dedication in 1974

MPAC invite, 1974
The 1974 invitation to MPAC's dedication

Like most great things, it took a bit longer than expected for the vision of MPAC to come to fruition. In his 1971 building request, Provost Darland said, "The long period of planning was due to the many problems encountered in planning a performing arts building and to a long delay in obtaining Title 1 funds."

The Marshall Performing Arts Center's opening ceremony was held on Sunday, February 3, 1974, six years after the initial ask. All three Marshall sisters attended the event, dedicating MPAC to their parents.

Noticeably absent was Marjorie Congdon Dudley. She passed away three years before the dedication of the building's Dudley Experimental Theatre. Jim Claypool, who's sister was married to Marjorie's son James, was there in her honor.

While less discernible than a building's opening, this also marked the creation of the School of Fine Arts, which provided the academic arm of UMD's brand new arts address.

Connected through Creativity

Today that address expands beyond campus; the School of Fine Arts includes Marjorie's family home, Glensheen, which is now a historic house museum, as well as the Tweed Museum of Art, Music, Theatre, Art and Design, the Fine Arts Academy, and the Viz Lab, a state-of-art facility that will soon include a 3D motion capture studio.

It's safe to guess that the Marshalls and Marjorie Congdon Dudley couldn't have imagined that their gift would someday launch a place so high tech that UMD students could create their own "Avatar." Evidence that, when space is designated, innovation flourishes.

MPAC in the 1970s




More Information

As part of MPAC's 40th Anniversary Celebration, the Department of Theatre presents "Damn Yankees," opening April 24.







Story by Lori C. Melton

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