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Duluth's front porch celebrates 50 years

Lee Ball speaks at the 1965 groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo: Screenshot from Duluth newsman Dick Anthony's YouTube documentary)1 / 5
This photo was taken on Oct. 16, 1965 from the parking lot of the Buena Vista Restaurant. Church construction committee meetings frequently took place at the restaurant. (Photo submitted)2 / 5
Wayne C. Olson with his sons at the cornerstone ceremony in October 1966. From left, Allan Richard Olson, Kenneth David Olson and Warren Thomas Olson. (Photo submitted)3 / 5
Cindy Hedlund, a member of the 50th anniversary celebration planning committee, holds a torch that the youth will use to parade from the old downtown location to the present site on the Skyline. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 5
The Coppertop is the first sight visiting ships see of Duluth. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)5 / 5

On Nov. 13, First United Methodist Church will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the building affectionately dubbed the "Coppertop." The first worship service in the new building was on Sunday, Nov. 13, 1966. This year on Sunday, Nov. 13, the church will have a special service celebrating the 50 years.

In 1966 the downtown church on Third Avenue West and Third Street needed expensive renovation. Parking was said to be horrendous. Many of the people who went to the downtown church still attend. The youngest are in their 50s.

Dorothy Comstock Anway, a retired University of Wisconsin-Superior mathematics professor, was in junior high school. She said the church's current location was tax-forfeited land that some wealthy members of the church purchased at an auction. The congregation soon had a meeting to decide whether they should accept this land as a new site of the church.

"That was my first vote as a confirmed member," Anway said. "It was awesome for me! Here I was a kid in junior high and it was a very important vote. And it felt really great."

Sporting a stylish coat and high heels, Lee Ball ("Mrs. Robert Ball," as the 1960s media called her) spoke for the Methodist women during the May 23, 1965 ground-breaking ceremony. Ball is an active member today. "I remember very well the incredulousness of many when the WSCS (Women's Society of Christian Service) pledged $10,000 to the Building Fund. There was no way the women could make a goal like that! But we did," she said.

Bill Alexander, retired Marshall School band director, was baptized at the downtown church by Rev. Win Haycock. In seventh grade Alexander rode by the construction of the building every day, as his family owned a business in downtown Duluth and lived in Hermantown.

Alexander recalls seeing the pyramid roof go up. "I take a lot of pride in ownership in it. It's a home with people I've known all my life." Alexander is also director of Strikepoint, the Coppertop's bell choir, which has traveled the world.

"We waited a long time for it (the building). We deserve to have a party," Alexander said. "I'm very proud of what we have done."

Many have referred to the church as Duluth's front porch.

"It's a landmark or a beacon; we host a lot of events," Alexander said. "If a funeral is too big for someplace else they usually will come to us." He cited events such as Ruby's Pantry, a food distribution program. Alexander is a third-generation member of the church. Both sets of grandparents were active at the downtown church.

Eliot L. Haycock and his wife, Naomi, were the first couple to be married in the new church building, on Nov. 19, 1966. "So like the church, Naomi and I are celebrating our golden anniversary this year," he said. They now live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and will travel to Duluth for the special event.

The first sight visiting ships see of Duluth is the Coppertop. It rises 150 feet from grade facing Lake Superior and 124 feet from the front main floor to the tip of the cross. The poured-concrete shell of the sanctuary is 40 feet high. From the floor of the nave to the peak, the rise is 88 feet. Pietro Bellucshi, a leader in American Modern architecture, was the prime design architect.

Diane Bean is a retired Hermantown teacher in her mid-80s. Her late husband, Bob, was an engineer and contract engineer for the building and on the board of trustees.

"I will build you a cathedral!" She recalls Bellucshi saying after he saw the site with its beautiful view. "That didn't really go over too well for our more conservative Methodist leaders. It seems they had something more simple in mind."

The 50th anniversary celebration will include former ministers including David Bard, who left earlier this year to become a bishop.

If you go

What: Coppertop 50th anniversary celebration

When: Sunday, Nov. 13

9:30 a.m. Shine the Light Parade starts downtown

10 a.m. Worship

11:30 a.m. Meatball dinner

12:30 p.m. Program

Where: 230 E. Skyline Parkway

Who: Anyone who feels a part of the Coppertop is invited, especially former ministers, choir leaders, church staff and those who wed in the church.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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