DULUTH – City officials here are mulling whether they can sell a pair of historic Tiffany windows to help offset an unprecedented $25.4 million budget shortfall.
The stained glass artifacts are on display downtown at the St. Louis County Depot, where natural light illuminates the colorful images near and dear to some Duluthians' hearts.
One depicts a Native American woman reminiscent of the character Minnehaha from "The Song of Hiawatha," a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the time the window was commissioned by the St. Louis County Women's Auxiliary for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The other shows the blue waters of Lake Superior as French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, may have seen them when he became the first European to arrive in the city in 1679.
Duluth is among hundreds of cities across Minnesota bracing for significant budget shortfalls from the economic impact of the coronavirus. Many cities are resorting to layoffs and furloughing employees, and some are discussing the sale of city-owned land. Duluth is among the first to consider selling valuable artifacts.
It's not the first time Duluth's City Council has considered selling the windows. The works were designated as local heritage preservation landmarks in 2010, after then-Mayor Don Ness broached the possibility of a sale to patch a $6.5 million budget hole during the Great Recession.
Ness' administration abandoned the attempt due to public outcry and the realization that the windows were likely to garner much less than the $3 million officials initially hoped.
On Monday, the council members will vote to decide whether they're willing to take up the issue once again. If the nine-person governing body approves a resolution asking the administration to re-evaluate the windows' landmark designation, city staff will explore if and how Duluth could sell them.
City officials said if the council gives them the go-ahead, they would look into the possibility of removing the windows' landmark status. Michael Koop, a historic preservation specialist for the state, said such action would be "very, very uncommon."
"I think there's an understanding that when landmark status is given, that status will remain in perpetuity," he said. "Having an owner of a property request to have something de-designated simply because they don't like it anymore is not a valid reason."
Any changes would have to go through Duluth's Heritage Preservation Commission and the City Council. Keeping the windows' landmark status doesn't preclude them from being sold — but it requires the owner to keep them well-preserved in a convenient Duluth location where the public can access them freely.
"For cities to look at plugging short-term budget holes by selling off very valuable public art is very shortsighted," said Carolyn Sundquist, a former member of the preservation commission who helped advocate for the protection afforded by the windows' landmark designation in 2010.
Renowned jeweler Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned Anne Weston, a New York City native who moved to Duluth, to craft the pieces. For decades, they were displayed in Duluth's old Carnegie Library on W. 2nd Street.
"In my mind, it's almost like going to the pawnshop with your grandma's 100-year-old ring," Council Member Derek Medved said during a preliminary council discussion Thursday.
Adam Fulton, Duluth's deputy director of planning and economic development, said Monday's vote is simply intended to gauge whether city staff should spend the time and effort examining possible courses of action. The City Council would have the final say in any sale agreement, which would first require valuations, public hearings and discussions with the preservation commission.
The council will simultaneously consider a similar directive that would instruct city staff to explore ways it could sell land to help address budget woes. Duluth is home to about 11,000 acres of public green space, about 7,000 of which it owns, said Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of properties, parks and libraries.
Only a "small minority" of that land that is not crucial to the city's environmental, recreational or stormwater management goals will be considered viable for sale, Filby Williams said.
Already, Duluth has laid off about 100 employees, instituted a hiring freeze, delayed a handful of projects and reached an agreement with bargaining units that requires union employees to take unpaid days off. The city, whose tourism-heavy economy has taken a hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the only municipality in Minnesota with a sales tax feeding its general fund.
"We have a couple of tough years ahead of us," Mayor Emily Larson previously told the Duluth City Council.