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Taking Center Stage 40 Years Later

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Taking Center Stage 40 Years Later

The Humanities building originally housed UMD’s arts programs, but it became clear in the late 1960s that UMD’s music, theatre, and dance programs needed a new home. The Marshall Performing Arts Center (MPAC) was dedicated in 1974, and it changed both the campus and learning landscapes at UMD over the past 40 years. And like all good performances, the dramatic twists and turns in MPAC’s development had its audience on the edge of their seats.

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. Known for their generosity and followed with keen interest, the Marshalls and the Congdons could be the Duluth-replicas of the Rockefellers and Carnegies.

Albert Morley Marshall was 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. Built in 1901, the Marshall-Wells headquarters spanned 251 to 319 Lake Avenue, claiming real estate at the base of Duluth’s shipping canal four years before the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge became part of the city’s skyline.

The same year 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 lapping 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.

Chester and Clara’s home in Duluth, Minn.

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 mater, 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!”

If one looked 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 when UMD faced a funding quagmire, the Marshalls emerged with a possible solution.

Seeking Investors
They were halfway there. In 1967, the Minnesota Legislature agreed to give UMD $500,000 for a performing arts building. However, before the money could be awarded to the university, the appropriation had to be matched.

the 4 womenProvost 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, and the School of Fine Arts Created
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.”

1974 Dedication
Dedicating the Marshall Performing Arts Center with Raymond L. Darland in 1974.

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, whose sister married 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, 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 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.

Take a photo tour of productions past housed in the Marshall Performing Arts Center.


Article written and provided by UMD External Affairs.