St. Louis County Jail (1923)

Duluth’s 1923 St. Louis County Jail photographed in 2013. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Once open, the facility took to the rather mundane duty of holding prisoners. For a while, that included the city’s prisoners as well. From about 1953 to 1962 a wing on the building’s ground floor was used as the city lock-up, and the county jailers did not like it. Sheriff Sam Owens told the News Tribune in 1961 that Federal jail inspectors used to regularly rate the St. Louis County facility above the 90th percentile, but since it started handling the city’s prisoners, that rating sunk to 70 percent. The issue was resolved when the city added a $30,000 jail to the third floor of City Hall.

In 1971 Sheriff Greg Sertich asked for a $35,000 remodel of the old jail, with upgrades to the air conditioning, lighting, a metal detector, and a new roof, but federal inspectors said the building was “better than adequate” and did not recommend any improvements. He blamed any escapes not on security, but on staff failure, which he called “the biggest loophole in any jail.” A 1976 report from state inspectors “found the building and its facilities maintained in an excellent manner.” Ten years later, the state was calling for its replacement.

A fifth floor was added to the building in 1978, covering the open exercise yard with a new roof, which did not do a great job of keeping water out of the building. Two years later an annex was added west of the building to provide additional office space and a more welcoming public entrance: the original “front door” to the jail lead straight into a secured area. When employees moved into the new annex, their old offices were converted into a photo processing lab, a forensic crime lab, a squad room, and a secured evidence storage room.

In 1984 state Department of Corrections inspectors found fire code violations at the jail, including the lack of fire escapes at both ends of the buildings. The 1923 facility also didn’t comply with standards Minnesota put in place in 1977. The state was on a mission to get counties to replace their old jail facilities, and its sights were set on St. Louis County. Two years later, despite the addition of a sprinkler system and other upgrades, state inspectors again found the building unsafe. A citizen committee was formed to investigate whether to improve the jail or build a new one. In July, 1987, they announced their findings, recommending that St. Louis County build a new jail with a capacity of 146 prisoners. The following year, the state called Duluth’s jail “among state’s five worst”—two days after county commissioners voted unanimously to build a new bastille.

Building its replacement would be nearly as long and difficult a struggle as constructing the 1923 jail. For one thing, the county was strapped for cash. Some opposed the idea, including district court judges Charles Barnes and David Bouscher, who thought the combination of remodeling the old jail and building a new, medium-security facility at the former Saginaw work farm near the Northeast Regional Corrections Center. And like the 1923 jail and 1909 county courthouse, there was great debate over where to put the jail; in February 1991 seven locations were under consideration. There was also the issues of size and design.

In March 1992 the Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to approve a 26-acre site for the new jail, south of Swan Lake Road between Haines Road and Beede Road The proposal recommended for a two-story jail capable of holding 197 prisoners. The new St. Louis County Jail opened in 1995.

“Saving” the Jail

After prisoners were transferred to the new facility, the 1923 jail housed the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Records Division, Investigations Division, Photo Lab and ID Bureau until 2007. By then its leaky roof had caused interior water damage, and chunks of the terra cotta cornice began falling off the building. The county conducted four reuse studies between 1987 and 2003 by architectural firms and the Minnesota Historical Society. A 2001 engineering report from Northland Consulting Engineers stated that, “a structural concrete slab on the second floor supports the jail cells and floor structure above. The jail cells are ‘stacked’ vertically and provide structural support for the cells themselves and those above. Therefore, the second through fifth (original roof) floors transmit loads downward through the jail cell walls and are supported by the second floor concrete structural slab.”

The county decided the best thing to do with the building was to tear it down. In its place the county would build a parking lot. The tunnel from the old jail to the courthouse would be retained, so that county employees could use it in inclement weather. The county was so confident the jail would be razed that it disconnected the building’s water service.

Local preservationists rallied to save the jail. After all, the jail made up 25 percent of what is considered the nation’s finest remaining example of Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful ideals, and the group as a whole sits on the National Register of Historic Places. Furthermore, the building is a Duluth Landmark, and therefore protected from demolition. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota put the jail on its annual “Ten Most Endangered Buildings” for several years in a row. The Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission vehemently advised the Duluth City Council not to allow the county to tear down a Duluth Landmark property. Members of the Duluth Preservation Alliance did the same.

When the county argued that the building’s poor condition and “jail-cell” construction rendered it impossible for reuse, preservationists cried foul. Some doubted the report that the jail cells were integral to the building’s structure. Others complained that the county’s own poor stewardship had caused the building’s decline and suggested the county was already in the process of demolishing the building by willful neglect.

In the end the preservationists prevailed—sort of. Since the building was a local landmark, the decision whether to allow the county to demolish the jail fell to the Duluth City Council. The city council delayed demolition to give the county a chance to sell the building. In 2010, Minneapolis real estate broker and developer Grant Carlson formed Jail Holdings LLC, which offered to buy the jail for $54,000; the sale went through in April, 2010.

Since he purchased the building, Carlson has accomplished a lot of the work critics of the county felt had been neglected: tuck pointing and other masonry repairs, new water service, site clean up, heating service to the annex, site preparation, and most importantly, a new roof. He has investigated several ideas for reuse, including multi-family housing, a hotel, business offices, secure storage, and data storage. As of 2017 he was still investigating the best way to reuse the old jail.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.