Fight is on over preserving the old downtown Duluth jail

The county's attempt to demolish the jail will test the strength of the city ordinance that established and set criteria for historic landmark designation.

Saving the jail
Members of the Duluth Preservation Alliance and others are gearing up for a fight to save the former St. Louis County Jail from demolition. On Saturday afternoon, some gathered outside the jail with signs that read "This place matters." The county is seeking a permit from the city to tear it down, but preservationists say it is legally protected under a city ordinance governing historic city landmarks. (Amanda Hansmeyer/

Should St. Louis County be allowed to demolish a historic building in downtown Duluth that the city has vowed -- through an ordinance -- to protect?

That's the heart of the dilemma facing the city as a battle brews to save the former St. Louis County Jail building that the county says has outlived its usefulness.

The issue moves into the public arena Tuesday when the city's Heritage Preservation Commission has a public hearing in City Hall over whether to grant the county a demolition permit. Preservationists say it's important for people to turn out to show they want the building saved.

But there's even more at stake.

Never before has anyone tried to demolish a locally designated landmark, local preservationist Carolyn Sundquist said. The former jail is part of the Duluth Civic Center historic district -- along with Duluth City Hall, St. Louis County Courthouse and the Federal Building -- which is said to be the best Classical Revival style architecture in the Upper Midwest.


The Civic Center complex also is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's the local landmark status that protects the buildings.

The county's attempt to demolish the jail will test the strength of the city ordinance that established and set criteria for historic landmark designation.

"It doesn't matter who owns it," Sundquist, a member of the commission, said of the landmark properties. "When a community awards a building landmark status, it means it's an historic structure worthy of saving to recognize the architecture and historic character of the community."

The clock is ticking

But time's running out for the former jail.

County officials are intent on tearing down the stately building this year. They applied for the demolition permit with the city in January. They've taken bids for the estimated $525,000 demolition job. They plan to replace the building with a 40-vehicle private parking lot.

"The decision has been made," Tony Mancuso, the county's property manager, told the city's Heritage Preservation Commission last month. "We're done with this building."

The imposing jail, built in 1923 with gray granite and extensive terra cotta ornamentation had fared well in reports and reviews until stringent new state jail standards were set in 1978. In 1986, the jail was found too antiquated and unsafe. In 1995, prisoners were moved to the new jail near the Duluth airport.

Since 1987, the county has had eight studies done on the jail's condition and reuse options. Studies found the leaky roof had caused damage to interior walls and to the terra cotta cornice. Electrical, piping, heating and ventilation systems need replacement. The small confined site provides little parking. And although the structure was found sound in 1998, the biggest challenge in converting it to other uses is the building's method of construction that includes a complex steel-cell system.


The studies found converting the building to offices and residents costing million dollars and even climate-controlled archival storage too costly for the county's coffers.

"We hear you loud and clear," Sundquist told county officials at last month's meeting. "But we also know this building can be reused. And once it's gone, it's gone forever."

Options go unheard

One option recommended in some of those studies -- selling the jail cheap to a private developer who could take advantage of federal rehabilitation tax credits in converting it -- hasn't been pursued.

In some cases, calls to county officials from interested parties, haven't even been returned, Sundquist said.

The latest came last week when Duluth real estate developer Lance Reasor, who is experienced at rehabilitating buildings, sought a walk-through of the jail.

"I'm not making any promises," he said. "But I'd like to take a look at it to see if I think it's doable."

County officials did not respond, which angered Reasor.

"They're not cooperative; they really want that for a parking lot," he said. "I don't need a hands-on tour. Give me a key to the door. I'll take a flashlight and go on over and look at it. But apparently that's not acceptable."


Because the former jail is part of the Civic Center historic district, whether the city grants the permit hinges on if the jail's removal will adversely affect the historic district.

The county maintains that the building is not significant and it's removal won't affect the historic district.

That's a tough sell for those on the Heritage Preservation Commission who are more interested in preserving the city's cultural and architectural heritage than erasing it.

"That's 25 percent of the historical district," Commissioner Donald Dass said. "How can you say it doesn't have an adverse effect? That building was designed as part of it."

If the commission turns down the permit request, the county is expected to appeal to the Duluth City Council. Councilors probably would take up the matter in April, including another public hearing.

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