Can the Old County Jail be saved?


Folks, as you may know, the county has long wanted to tear down the historic St. Louis County Courthouse to create parking spaces. They are now pushing forward with those plans.

The jail is part of Duluth’s Civic Center, Duluth’s one-stop shop for some very impressive Classical/ Renaissance architecture. The center includes the St. Louis County Courthouse, Duluth City Hall, and the U.S. Federal Building-as well as the county jail, the Cass Gilbert-designed Soldiers & Sailors Monument (Fortitude Defending the Flag), and a fountain. The courthouse, which went up in 1909, was designed by famed architect Daniel H. Burnham, who among other accomplishments oversaw the entire design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Abraham Olstead and William J. Sullivan designed the 1923 county jail, but did so in a manner in keeping with Burnham’s original idea and under Burnham’s direction. The gray granite building includes features such as Doric columns and lions heads. The jail is adorned with symbols of justice, including Roman fasces (a bundle of birch rods wrapped around an axe).

(The whole complex was part of the “City Beautiful” movement, a progressive reform movement of architecture and urban planning popular in the late 1890s and early twentieth century-it was thought that a beautiful city would create moral and civic virtue, people would behave, and the lives of inner-city poor would improve.)

The building is on the National Register of Historic Place and has been designated a Duluth Landmark property. Twice it has appeared on the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office’s “Ten Most Endangered Buildings” list.

Contrary to popular belief, the building can be successfully adapted for reuse, though it would be an expensive venture the county can’t afford. I know not everyone cares about saving our old buildings–and there are valid reasons the county has no more interest in maintaining the building. But to many like me, buildings such as the jail reflect our social and cultural heritage, and an effort should be made to at least attempt to sell the building to a party willing to invest in it–at the very least, demolition should only be discussed when all other options have been exhausted. They have not.

Technically, since the building has landmark status, the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission (disclaimer: I sit on this commission) can do little else but deny any work on the building that does not meet it’s plan for renovation, and demolition does not fit the plan. Technically, the City Council can override the HPC, but only if the work on the building fits the Secretary of Interior’s standards for preservation projects, and again demolition does not fit such plans. But that does not mean it won’t happen.

If the future of this building matters to you and you want your voice heard on this issue, there will be a public hearing before the HPC at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24 in the City Council Chambers in City Hall where you can speak your mind. Please attend.

And if you have some time tomorrow, at 2 p.m. folks are gathering at the Jail to show their support for the building. Please come.



about 15 years ago

Who will the tenant be after the renovation?  Does the project qualify for NMTC ?  What will the sale price be?  How many parking spots are there?  How many sqft of leasable area?

It's a beautiful building.  Several weird additions and window changes.  Will the HPC force the developer to keep those changes?  

A&L renovated the Jail in Superior.  The City wanted to tear it down.  Huge project undoing a jail.


about 15 years ago

They should just gut it, remove the windows and build the parking ramp within the structure.  How hard would that be?  Sell the interior fixtures, could bring a lot of revenue to the city.  Don't hate me, it's true, hard to stop the Duluth political wheel from making bad decisions.  If they were really thinking, they would turn into a mall.  Get that madness off the hill and downtown where it is more accessible to the locals and tourists.  Can't you see a restoration hardware all bright and pretty?

Steve Lindsey

about 15 years ago

Maybe one reason county officials want this building so "gone" may be it's association with Duluth's darkest moment: The Robinson Circus Show Lynchings.  Was this the jail breached by the vengeful mob on June 14, 1920?  Was this the "county jail" where three mob members were later held?  If association to the historic moment can be proven, is this history worth remembering?

Consider Bowling Green, Va.'s jail just saved, largely for its association with the nationally important Loving case, as well as an infamous night spent there by basketball great Wilt Chamberlian. See:'s-news/bowling-green-jail.html 

Rep. Steven Lindsey
Keene, NH

Tim K

about 15 years ago

That was NOT the jail that was breached for the lynching- that was more than a decade before it was built.


about 15 years ago

Agreed, it's not the same jail.  But that's a fascinating conspiracy theory.  I say we go with it.


about 15 years ago

They are working on a jail here in Maryland, I believe the county is doing it as a revenue builder, it will have restaurants below, community pool, tenents above.


about 15 years ago

Local rabble rouser Jay Cole is working to build an organization or get some backers to re-develop the building.  It is just about all he talks about.  I'm starting to think his plan will work.  I hope someone's does

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