The Laurium Commercial School

While Houghton had the Mining College, and Hancock Suomi College, Laurium had its own institution of higher learning in the form of the Laurium Commercial School. Established in 1899 by a Mr. J. F. Reinier, the school offered coursework in stenography, penmanship, typewriting, bookkeeping, and “all other commercial subjects”. Within a few years the school had grown large enough to warrant its relocation from space it rented in the Richetta block into a large business block of its own in a two-story sandstone building on the corner of Hecla and Second Street. Built by contractor Peter Contralto for a cost of over $10,000, the building would continue to house the commercial school for another 35 years until the depravity of the Depression forced the school’s closure in 1935.

The Contralto Block, Hecla Street, Laurium
The Contralto Block
The Contralto Block (more commonly known as the Monroe Building) continues to stand to this day, though in far worse shape then we last saw it in the previous postcard image. During its tenure the school occupied the entire building, offices and a office supply store on the first floor with classrooms occupying the top floor. At its peak the school boasted an enrollment of nearly 300 students, with its top floor classrooms capable of catering to about half that at one time.

The Contralto Block Turret, Laurium
The Contralto Block Turret
Perhaps the building’s most iconic feature is its corner turret which rises a good half dozen feet above the building’s roof. It starts on the second floor with a trio of windows and continued up past the building’s roofline with a second trio of openings and a cone cap at its peak. Those second pair of openings hold windows today, but originally they appeared to have held slatted wood inserts. I would imaging they open only into attic space either way.

The Contralto Block Turret, Laurium
A Closer Look at the Corner Tower
The turret features an interesting mix of facade elements, including a faux brick looking second floor covering and what a reader had identified as being slate scales on its upper floor. There’s also an interesting series of carvings found up along the roofline – twisted ropes and what looks to be snakes of all things.

The Main Entrance Steps of the Contralto Block, Laurium
Main Entrance Steps
Below the turret sits the building’s corner entrance – an entrance that once opened to the school’s office supply store. The store sold various office supplies including typewriters and other office machinery. In addition to the supplies the school also provided typewriting services provided by their students in much the same way as beauty schools offer reduced haircuts. Oddly the stairs in front of that entrance don’t extend around the corner of the building but are instead truncated at their Second Street facing side. As odd as this looks I would suspect it was done later in the building’s life, perhaps during adjacent sidewalk work or road work.

The Hecla Street Facade of the Contralto Block, Laurium
The Hecla Street Facade
In addition to the office supply store in the corner, a second storefront could be found along the Hecla Street facing facade. That storefront on the left was home to the school administration offices and was were prospective students could learn about the school and sign up for classes. The door in the center provided access to the upper floor classrooms.

The Old School Office Entrance of the Contralto Block, Laurium
The Old School Office Entrance
Those storefronts don’t look the same as they once did, their impressive shop and transom windows largely filled in today. Yet a few remnants of the building’s more illustrious past can still be found – including the starburst emblem up on the iron beam overhead.

Second Floor Windows of the Contralto Block, Laurium
Old Classroom Windows
More architectural details an be spied around the upper floor windows, including protruding sandstone lintels and decoratively placed stone above the windows. The classrooms for the school would have be located behind these windows. Today they serve as apartments.

Second Street Facade of the Contralto Block, Laurium
Second Street Facade
Around the corner along the Second Street facade of the building we find no other storefronts – only this upper store entrance and an old coal chute. I would imagine this was a back entrance back in the building’s school days. Today it serves as an entrance to another apartment I would suspect.

Third Rate Wall of the Contralto Block, Laurium
Third Rate Wall
At the opposite side of the building we find a far rougher facade – one built not out of the first class sandstone found along the front facade but a far less refined rock with far more white striping. This makes sense considering the this side of the building didn’t face a road, but instead a neighboring structure. Yet even so this side does feature far more windows then one would expect on the side of a building facing other buildings. That’s because when built only a house stood in this neighboring lot – a house set far back in its lot that allowed a great deal of light to reach this side of the Monroe Block. That light was no doubt useful for the upper story classrooms – as a trio of more openings can be found up there.

New Window along Contralto Block, Laurium
A New Window
Another window graces the building’s south facade, but this one has the unusual characteristic of being lined with brick. This is the only instance of brick being used in the building, and I would guess that it was a much later addition. In fact the entire window looks to be a bit “off” architecturally and I would guess that it might have been added when the top floor was converted into apartments.

Old Postcard of the Contralto Block in 1910
The Contralto Block in 1910
In 1905 Mr. Reinier retired from his position as principal of the commercial school he started, and the position was filled by a long time teacher at the school – Arthur Holden. Under Mr. Holden’s leadership the school would continue to grow substantially, and soon the school was joined by the addition of two other satellite schools, one in Calumet and another in Hancock (known as the Twin City Commercial School). Yet as noted earlier, the arrival of the Great Depression meant schools like Holden’s were too expensive to attend, and with little jobs to be had not much use as well. The Laurium Commercial School would close for good in 1935.

In the decades to follow various businesses made a go at it in the old building, but soon the building’s relative remoteness compared to the rest of Laurium’s and Calumet’s downtowns made it not an ideal location. As with most building’s without purpose in the Copper Country, the old commercial school would be converted into apartments – its storefront window’s covered up in the process. Its a role the building continues to fill today – the structure’s days of worker training now long behind it.

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    1. Like Gordy says, the doors at the foot of the Italian Hall stairs opened outward. It was physically impossible for them to swing inward since the bottom step of the stairs was right at the threshold of the doorway. The photos show that. Also, all creditable accounts of the tragedy report the first people to flee went down the main stars and out the open doors and the first rescuers started pulling people out of the jam at the bottom of the stairs through the open doorway. Whomever or whatever cause the stampede, the sad fact is some poor person tripped and fell on the stairs followed by others who tripped and fell over him or her. Don’t believe Woody Guthrie or even the memorial sign, there are a lot of “alternative facts” out there.

  1. The upper wall and roof on that turret are clad with slate. Quite rare in this part of the country. Believe it or not, that slate could easily last as long as those stone walls. The broken and missing slates are quite replaceable.

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