Architect Rebecca Lewis revels in the beauty of the lobby of Duluth’s Medical Arts Building

By Amy Goetzman

Every element in the Art Deco lobby of the Medical Arts Building in historic downtown Duluth draws the eye upward—by design, says Rebecca Lewis, FAIA. Lewis first experienced the building as a child, visiting doctors and dentists there. Today, as director of healthcare design at DSGW Architects, she considers the lobby an important part of her inspiration and education.

“Everything is focused on having you look up—the lighting, the detail on the brass elevator doors, the incredible gold-leaf ceiling,” says Lewis. “The ceiling is very textured—each square of gold leaf is distinctive, almost as if it were independently applied—and it’s beautifully lit around the edges. The color just glows.” For Lewis, the design is powerfully psychological: “The effect is to inspire hope, confidence, and comfort.”

The longtime Duluth resident says the city is filled with underappreciated architecture. From the outside, the Medical Arts Building is a comparatively streamlined historic structure; there’s little hint of the beautiful secret just inside the entry. Each time she visits the building, Lewis says, the lobby reveals another layer of its design. “Before today, I had never noticed the book-matching of the marble,” she says, almost to herself. “The way the marble is installed to highlight the elevators—just incredible.”

She compares the building to Mayo Clinic’s César Pelli–designed Gonda Building in Rochester, Minnesota, completed in 2002. “They’re both intricate in space and have a strong human element. They’re both solid and inspirational,” she says, noting that the 1932 Medical Arts Building, by Ernest R. Erickson & Co., is Art Deco but “academic Art Deco—not flamboyant like so many designs from this era.” Age gives the Duluth building added layers of meaning. “It’s like a human being: We show our age,” she explains. “The patching, the repairs made over time, and the way light has impacted the lobby all contribute to the patina and add to the beauty.”

The Medical Arts Building opened at a pivotal moment in medical history. New medications and anesthetics were coming into use, health insurance was becoming available, and treatment models were evolving as physicians gained a greater understanding of body systems and disease. “The term medical arts is very old. In the early days, medical practice truly was an art, meaning there was a lot of experimentation, educated guessing, and luck involved,” says Lewis. “In the 1930s, there was a shift in how illnesses were treated. Vaccines and antibiotics brought about monumental changes. Medical buildings needed to evolve to reflect this new era.”

Lewis’ long résumé of notable projects includes the North Shore Health hospital in Grand Marais and tribal clinics across the country; each of the clinics is designed to reflect the culture of its tribal community. She says she was drawn to healthcare architecture because of its unique connection to the human condition.

“No other type of architecture covers the spectrum of human experience, from happiness and joy to worry and despair,” says Lewis. “You need to put yourself in the shoes of the patients and staff who spend time in these buildings. I’m enthralled by this type of work. A well-designed medical environment knits together a wide variety of experiences, some of which are momentous. You want to make the space the best it can be for the people who pass through it.”