St. Louis County Jail (1923)

Workers take a break while building the St. Louis County Jail to pose for a photograph.  Jackson Elementary can be seen in the background. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

A New Jail Rises

More changes created more delays and more cost adjustments and little progress. Finally, on July 27, 1924, the News Tribune’s headline cried “County Opens New $700,000 Jail on August 1,” and the ensuing story reported that “no formal opening or special ceremony will mark the first day of use.” But no reports of prison transfer appeared in the newspaper following August 1. According to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s office, prisoners were not moved to the new jail until the spring of 1925, but a 1999 study on the jail states that “In early August [of 1924], ninety-eight prisoners [were] transferred from the old county lockup to the new jail.” (While ground was broken in 1922 and prisoners did not move in until 1924 or 1925, the construction year is often given as 1923, likely the year the cornerstone was laid.) When complete, the building’s costs came to $713,165.

Transferred prisoners found the new jail a sharp contrast to the dark, musty, overcrowded 1889 facility, and state and federal prison authorities were even more impressed, claiming that the new St. Louis County Jail “spells a new era in the reform movement.” One major change over earlier jails was that the new facility had “light in abundance,” and was “built with a view to scientific arrangement and possesses every modern device for the safe-keeping, comfort and health of the inmates.”

Besides offices for corrections officers, the first floor held the facilities that provided most of the “comfort and health” features, including a fully equipped kitchen, laundry, and “sick cells,” special medical and emergency operating rooms stocked with “staple medical equipment.”

The second through fourth floors held a total of 93 cells, each with its own toilet and large enough to hold two prisoners. The corridors outside the cells featured inlaid rubber matting so that the footsteps of patrolling guards would not wake the prisoners. The men’s units on the second and third floors each held 32 cells, and 24 cells were used for women and juveniles on the fourth floor. This level also contained the matron’s office and five “dark” cells set aside to punish those who committed offenses while incarcerated. The fourth floor also contained another element of the prison reform movement: a classroom for prisoners, the only such facility in the entire state.

The top of the building was also designed with the prisoners’ health in mind. Its parapet stood high above the actual roof, creating a tall wall and converting the otherwise unusable space into an inescapable exercise yard where, according to the newspaper, “prisoners may be given their liberty without the necessity of even a guard.”

The “safe-keeping” of the prisoners was bolstered by an electronic locking system that controlled not just the cells but “every door in the building.” The building’s front doors, each a half-ton of steel, incited experts to declare the building was “practically mob proof,” a comforting feature for a community that, just five years earlier, saw an angry crowd of 10,000 citizens attack the city’s police headquarters, abduct three innocent men, and hang them from a nearby light post. And fire would not be an issue: made of poured concrete and 280 tons of steel, the building was considered so flame resistant that the county decided against insuring it. “The only wood in the building,” the News Tribune boasted, “is that mounted on the stair banister.”

Outside, the new jail hardly looked like a penal facility. Holstead and Sullivan designed the building’s exterior to fit within Burnham’s plan of a group of neoclassical buildings, including Roman columns on either side of the main entrance on Second Street. Faced with gray granite quarried at Rockville, Minnesota, the building is capped with a stunning 12-foot terra-cotta cornice. Below the cornice at each corner sits a terra cotta medallion flanked by two fasces, bundles of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting—a Roman symbol of the local magistrate’s power. Below each medallion a lion’s head holds in its jaw a shield and sword motif. A frieze between the medallions of the Second Street façade reads:

The great privilege is given to all to develop strength of character, to lead clean and honest lives, to render diligent and worthy service, to help others and to be loyal citizens of the republic and obedient to its laws.

It is a sentiment that reflects the City Beautiful movement championed by Daniel Burnham, the architect of the Duluth Civic Center’s master plan. This architectural and city planning movement “promoted beauty not only for its own sake, but also to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.” The face of Burnham’s 1909 St. Louis County Courthouse includes a similar sentiment.

Read more of this story: 1 2 3
Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.