Transformation of Duluth jail into apartment building nears completion – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The former St. Louis County Jail on West Second Street will be renamed Leijona and will be redeveloped into a 33-apartment building.

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

“Nobody wants to live in a building called a prison, do they?” said Elliott.

The project’s original working name 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 said many people don’t know about Burnham, and while his work inspired the design of the old jail, it was actually designed by architects Abraham Holstead and William J. Sullivan.

“So we redesigned the name as well as the colors we use, she said, explaining that the new name is more likely to resonate with people, especially in an area with many people of Finnish descent. She called the name “a nod to Duluth’s history and part of its heritage.”

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. This color scheme will include green, gold and burgundy.

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

Some of the original steel bars were strategically retained as decoration and a nod to the building’s history, but Elliott said around 200 tonnes of steel were removed from the old prison during its dismantling and reconfiguration.

Leijona’s website,, markets the apartments with the tagline: “From Jail to Your Home”.

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

historic building under renovation
Developer and co-owner Meghan Elliott shows off one of the hallways leading to the apartments.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The prison has remained abandoned since 1995, when a replacement was built, and pigeons had infiltrated the structure, roosting there and defecating for years. The accumulated guano was flagged as a hazard that should be removed, but the lead paint covering most of the floors below was not discovered until it was gone. Elliott said lead abatement costs likely added at least $200,000 to project costs.

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

The project is being carried out using historic tax credits that require the renovation to be completed by the end of the year. To achieve this goal, approximately 40 workers were on site daily to push the building to the finish line.

Elliott said the building was awaiting an order for 98 large windows, with a shortage of glass. These operable windows will replace the glass blocks that filled 7-by-9-foot openings when the building served as a prison. The windows were due to arrive in July, but she has been assured that they are on their way and should arrive soon.

The large windows will provide stunning views of Lake Superior, the Civic Center and Duluth Hill. Elliott said she could barely wait for them to arrive.

historic building under renovation
Meghan Elliott looks out of the large windows of a unit. The lower part of the bars has been preserved.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Leijona will provide 16-17 on-site surface parking spaces for tenants and can provide the remainder of tenants parking on a city-owned parking ramp in the 400 block of West First Street.

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

Leijona, located at 521 W. Second St., has already received more than 100 inquiries from interested tenants, 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 affordable, discounted units available specifically for qualified tenants earning only 60 or 70 percent of the area’s median income, and other units available at market rents of up to $1,900 per month.

Comments are closed.