Duluth Police Headquarters & Jail (1890)

The Duluth Police Headquarters and jail, photographed some time between 1890 and 1909. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Chiefs of the 1920s and ’30s

One of Pugh’s first action as chief was to clean house, getting rid 18 officers considered unqualified because they had not passed a civil service exam. They were allowed to test to regain their jobs in the new year, but they also had to compete with 20 other applicants. Pugh also named police matron Mary Walsh Connelly, a 12-year veteran of the force—as Duluth’s first Patrol Woman. A believer in innovations, in 1922 Pugh brought the Duluth Police Department its first polygraph machine, not that he had complete faith in the contraption. “It cannot prove guilt or innocence,” he said. “Its function, from the police standpoint, is to aid detectives into determining whether or not they are working the right ‘leads,’ and in clearing innocent suspects.”

Despite his forward thinking, Pugh was gone by 1924, when Edward Barber took over. Barber was chief until 1932, when he was replaced by R. E. Donaldson. O. G. Olson took the helm from 1936 to 1939, when Edward B. Hansen became chief—the last chief to serve in the 1890 building. It was condemned in 1941 by Public Safety commissioner Richard Peterson. The Duluth News Tribune described the building as “Unsanitary, poorly ventilated, obsolete, a fire hazard, and in generally bad condition, and as being such is a great danger to the well-being, health, security and life of any person confined there.” Costs to repair the building were estimated at between $70,000 and $100,000—that’s between $1 million and $160 million today. The Department abandoned the structure on October 7, 1941, moving into a new facility within the 1929 Duluth City Hall in the Duluth Civic Center.

1941 – Today: abandoned, then reinvented

The building sat vacant during World War II. It is thought that during this period the steel from the jail cells was removed for the war effort (the ragged edges of bars that once covered the exterior windows on the building’s west side are still visible). In 1946 Superior’s Northern Electric bid to purchase both the police headquarters and the 1890 city hall, but after some legal wrangling the LaSalle Apartment Co. of Eveleth, Minnesota, purchased both buildings for $40,250 (about $470,000 today). They intended to remodel the buildings for commercial usage, but those plans never really materialized, and the firm ended up selling the buildings to Northern Electric, which moved into the former city hall. Police headquarters sat vacant until 1948, when its main floor became the home of The Southern Incorporated, a restaurant specializing in fried chicken. The Southern closed by 1957, and again the building sat vacant, used mostly for storage for the next ten years

In 1968 the Police Headquarters was purchased by Architectural Resources. The firm cleaned up the building’s exterior by first removing an awning installed when the building served fried chicken. They also acid etched the exterior, bringing out some of the finer details in the stone carvings. Inside, the building’s first floor was entirely remodeled. The 18-foot ceilings were lowered with false ceilings to improve heat efficiency, plaster was stripped from the walls to expose the red brick, and new windows were installed. Timber salvaged from the Ashland ore docks was used to frame doorways. The area that once held cells became a drafting room, and a “mezzanine” level was created in the front half of the building using the extra space provided by the original wall height. The second floor, used for storage, was practically untouched—and of course the architectural firm has no use for the manure pit. When it was done, a few ornamental columns—and a peep hole once used to monitor prisoners—is all that remains of the 1889 interior. The project took four months and cost $34,000 (about $210,000 today).

In 2005 the building’s first floor interior underwent another renovation. In the front half, the ceilings were opened to their original 18 feet. The Superior Street and the mezzanine floor levels completely gutted, and a conference room was created at the very front of the building. A new set of stairs now leads to the Michigan Street level, where two offices were added. The top floor is still used for storage and still looks very much like it did in 1889 (there are plans to create offices on this level). Architectural Resources CEO Doug Hildenbrand calls the renovation “a simple remodel that shows the old structure well.”

It has been 75 years since the building at 126 East Superior Street last served the purpose for which it was built. The building was condemned, considered obsolete and useless. It then lingered as storage space under an unimaginative owner until it was purchased by a group with a vision for its use and an appreciation for the materials and craftsmanship that went into it. Today it stands as shining example of how a building’s exterior can still reflect the time it was built—and the aspirations of citizens—while its interior can be successfully adapted for reuse and still serve the community.

Special thanks to Jeanne Hennek, Ryan Erspamer and Doug Hildenbrand of Architectural Resources for their time, historic images and access to the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters.

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