Oh, what a difference a few months make.
Prospects of saving the old St. Louis County Jail seemed grim two months ago. The county’s attempt to get a demolition permit was blocked. Then their efforts to sell the vacant building had produced no viable offer.
The wrecking ball was looming again for the local landmark.
Now the 1920s-era jail’s sale to a development team from Minneapolis who plan to adapt it for refuse — most likely office and conference space — is set to close April 16.
Time will tell if they’re successful.
In the meantime, for inspiration, consider what was done with Boston’s Charles Street Jail. In recent years, the 19th Century jail — which is a National Historic Landmark –has been transformed into a luxury hotel that incorporates its history and has revitalized the city’s old West End neighborhood. The Liberty Hotel, which opened in 2007, has become a premier hotel in New England. It’s bars and restaurants — Clink, Alibi and Scumpo ("escape" in Italian) — are popular and considered hip places to go.
Built in 1851, the building served as the Suffolk County Jail until its 1990 closing. Then — like the St. Louis County Jail — it was neglected and its condition deteriorated.
In time, the roof of the old Boston jail had holes and leaked. Pigeons moved in. Junk filled the premises. Peeling paint mixed with the graffiti left by inmates on cell walls.
But some developers with deep pockets saw beyond the blackened granite, crumbling plaster, ramshackle steel supports and moisture damage to the architectural treasure that it is.
Built of stone, four wings radiate from a central octagonal rotunda in a cross shape. A cupola rises up from the rotunda. The exterior is granite. Enormous windows bring in natural light.
During the renovation, the damaged roof was removed and the cell blocks were systematically removed. Numerous layers of paint were stripped to expose the brick walls. The granite was cleaned and brighted to a silver gray. An entire wing was deconstructed, then recontructed, block-by-block. Some cells, which had been built large enough to exercise in, were turned into luxury rooms. A 16-story tower was added, providing 300 more rooms.
The transformation took five years. Today, sophisticated decor mixes with historical components, including a 90-foot tall atrium, several levels of catwalks and metal stairs encircling the rotunda and remnants of cells and window bars. Catwalks connect the hotel’s restaurants, grand ballroom, lobby, meeting rooms and other public spaces.
Granted, the project was huge. And with a price tag of $110 million, it was expensive. But if adaptive reuse is possible for a 150-year-old jail, surely there’s new life possible for the much smaller, 86-year-old county jail in Duluth.