Transformation of Duluth jail into apartment building nears completion

The historic building is expected to welcome its first tenants come January.

historic building under renovation
Developer and co-owner Meghan Elliott shows a couple of cell doors that will remain in the units during a tour of the Leijona apartment complex under construction in the historic St. Louis County Jail building on Thursday in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The former St. Louis County Jail on West Second Street will be renamed Leijona and will be repurposed as a 33-unit apartment building.

Leijona, pronounced lay-oh-nah, is the Finnish word for lion, and developer Meghan Elliott said the building draws the inspiration for its name and logo from some of the ornamentation on the structure’s granite facade. She noted that prominent images of lions actually are worked into the neoclassical revival stone exteriors of buildings throughout the surrounding Civic Center campus.

“Nobody wants to live in a building called a jail, right?” Elliott said.

The original working name for the project was the New Burnham Apartment Building, a reference to Architect Daniel Burnham who designed most of the buildings in Duluth’s Civic Center. But Elliott explained that many people are unfamiliar with Burnham, and while his work inspired the design of the former jail, it was actually designed by architects Abraham Holstead and William J. Sullivan.

“So, we rethought the name as well as the colors that we’re using,” she said, explaining that the new name is more likely to connect with people, especially in an area with many people of Finnish descent. She referred to the name as “a nod to the history of Duluth and some of its heritage.”


historic building under renovation
One of the stone lions on the facade of the Leijona apartment complex under construction in the historic St. Louis County Jail building. Leijona is the Finnish word meaning lion.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Many of the building’s interior finishes will incorporate colors found in the building’s refinished terrazzo floors that will remain. That color palette will include green, gold and burgundy.

Built in 1924, the 93-cell jail was designed to hold up to 100 inmates. The steel bars of the cells not only kept prisoners confined but also provided support for the building. As those cells were removed to open up the floor plan, new structural supports had to be installed.

Some of the original steel bars have been strategically retained as decor and a wink to the building’s history, but Elliott said about 200 tons of steel was removed from the former jail as it was dismantled and reconfigured.

Every era from the 1880s to the present day is represented.

Leijona's website, , markets the apartments with the slogan: "From jailhouse to your house."

The original budget for the project was $8.3 million. Once work began, however, Elliott and her development team, including Jon Commers and Grant Carlson, made some disheartening discoveries. The amount of lead paint that had to be abated was far greater than they originally anticipated, due to the large quantities of lead paint that had been used to coat walls and floors.

historic building under renovation
Developer and co-owner Meghan Elliott shows one of the hallways to apartment units.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The jail has sat abandoned since 1995, when a replacement was built, and pigeons had infiltrated the structure, roosting there and defecating for years on end. The accumulated guano was flagged as a hazard that would need to be removed, but the lead paint coating most of the floors underneath was not discovered until it was gone. Elliott said lead abatement costs have probably added at least $200,000 to project costs.

But Elliott said she and her partners already had too much work and money into the renovation to even consider turning back, especially after the commitments they had made to Duluth and its residents.

“I don’t know if we’d want to do it again,” said Cuyuna Cove co-founder Kelsey Braun. "It tested us.”

The project is being completed with the help of historic tax credits that require the renovation to be finished by the end of the year. To meet that goal, about 40 workers have been on site daily to push the building across the finish line.


Elliott said the building has been waiting on an order of 98 large windows, with glass in short supply. Those operable windows will replace glass blocks that had filled 7-by-9-foot openings when the building served as a jail. The windows were to have arrived in July, but she has received assurances they are on the way and should arrive soon.

The large windows will offer sweeping views of Lake Superior, the Civic Center and Duluth’s hillside. Elliott said she can hardly wait for them to arrive.

historic building under renovation
Meghan Elliott looks out the large windows in a unit. The lower portion of the bars were preserved.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Leijona will offer 16 to 17 stalls of surface parking on site for tenants and will be able to provide the remainder of tenants parking in a city-owned parking ramp in the 400 block of West First Street.

Elliott said she also hopes that Second Street will be permanently modified and narrowed to slow traffic coming off of Mesaba Avenue, providing a safer crossing area for pedestrians.

Leijona, located at 521 W. Second St., already has received more than 100 inquiries from interested renters, and Elliott said she remains optimistic the building will be fully occupied when it opens.

The apartment building will be a mixed-income operation, with a number of reduced-rate affordable units available specifically for qualified tenants earning just 60 or 70% of the area median income, and other units available at market rate rents of up to $1,900 per month.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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