One hundred years ago today — May 11, 1921 — the Duluth Herald published a story about plans for a new St. Louis County Jail. The building that would eventually be constructed looks somewhat similar to the drawing here, but there were numerous changes to the plan.
Duluth’s Civic Center includes the St. Louis County Courthouse (1909), Duluth City Hall (1928), Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building (1930), St. Louis County Jail (1923) and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1919).
This undated postcard image from the Gallagher Studio of Photography shows the St. Louis County Courthouse and Duluth City Hall behind the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the Duluth Civic Center. The card is perhaps a bit older than another postcard of the Civic Center featured on Perfect Duluth Day, which shows a more expansive garden.
This early 1970s postcard shows Duluth’s Civic Center, which includes the St. Louis County Courthouse, Duluth City Hall, Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building, St. Louis County Jail and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
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.