Historic St. Louis County Jailhouse Getting New Life as Apartment Building

Developers hope to have the building complete and open for tenants by the end of 2022.

DULUTH, Minn.- After sitting unused for more than a decade the historic St. Louis County Jailhouse in downtown Duluth is getting new life as mixed rate apartments.

“It’s over 10 yrs in the making since the stay of demolition of this building in 2010,” said Jason Hale, Senior Housing Developer with the City of Duluth. “So this has been a very difficult building.”

Crews are at work on the site already behind the St. Louis County Courthouse on West 2nd Street after it was sold in October.

“The fact that it closed and Gardner Builders is on-site doing work and they set up their fences it’s almost like oh wow actually it’s happening,” Hale said. “Cool, this has been a lot of work and you almost expect it not to happen because of how long it’s taken.

The building was sold to New Burnham, an entity that includes the jail’s previous owner Grant Carlson, and Meghan Elliott of New History out of Minneapolis focused on reusing historic buildings.

Elliott said they’re embracing the building’s dark history as a jail built in 1923.

“We’re not hiding that, but we are taking on a space that was historically used as a jail space and turning it into homes,” said Elliott, Founding Principal of New History, “so the extent that we can retain character in terms of the bars, the concrete floors.”

Gardner Builders are among the construction companies on the project. “The most exciting component of it is the fact that there’s not a single part of this project that is like anything else it’s all unique,” said Mike Bahr, Project Manager with Gardner, “it’s like a custom home, right?”

For workers, the $9 million project is no small feat — especially when converting old small cells which temporarily housed criminals, into 33 larger comfortable living spaces.

“The existing structure is all load-bearing so when you pull out the jail cells you weaken the structure,” Bahr said, “and so we have a process of actually pretty much rebuilding the entire structure from the inside out to support this new layout.”

But it won’t just be a place to live, certain parts will be open to the public to view and learn about.

“I will say a surprisingly beautiful lobby space for a jail structure will always be open to both residents and non-residents,” said Elliott, “and then as you move up the building there’s these great essentially they’re the guard elevator lobbies.”

“All of that will be retained and made available to people to see how the building worked and what the history of the building was like,” she said.

On top of all that, they’re under a tight deadline — needing to wrap up by the end of 2022.

That’s to qualify for state and federal historic tax credits, which Elliott said is equal to about $3 million. “Minnesota state historic tax credits have been probably one of the most important tools for historic building redevelopment in the state of Minnesota since it was put in place 10 years ago.”

It is a big undertaking, but one that’s putting a lot of Duluthians to work.

“It’s really exciting that almost everyone on the on-site, you know the skilled labor doing the work a lot of those companies are based in Duluth and a lot of the workers live in the Duluth area too so there’s a really strong local presence working on this project,” said Bahr.

According to Hale, it also adds much-needed mixed rate apartments downtown, and the city is negotiating units to be more affordable.

“Obviously for folks working in the civic center so the federal building the courthouse or city hall this is a great commute,” he said, “they can walk across the street. Likewise Maurice’s employees…this is a great little addition and bookend to the historic district there.”

And Elliott hopes it not only houses more people — but exposes them to the decades of stories housed inside.

“I think what we need to do our task right now is to help people understand the story and to help people get into the building to see what this is going to be like,” she said.

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