Friday, November 18, 2011

Jailhouse blues

Figuring out what to do with a century-old jail under a bad roof parked alongside busy railroad tracks and now vacant is not an enviable task, but that's what the Lucas County Board of Supervisors is trying to do this fall, most recently during a midweek public hearing.

The 1916 structure, which had served as the Lucas County Law Enforcement Center since 1973, was emptied a few weeks ago when the county sheriff's department and Chariton police moved to brand new quarters in the northwest part of town.

It's been obvious for years that there was no hope for adapting the old LEC to meet modern needs, especially the need to house prisoners in conformance with health and safety requirements, and it's taken years to come up with the workable solution the new building provides.

Regarding the old building, a couple things are sure bets. The county is unlikely to invest money in a building with no apparent use; supervisors don't have the money to invest in adapting it for an alternate public use even if a bright idea turned up; and finally, they're not likely to allow the structure to deteriorate into a hazard or an eyesore. The most likely outcome is demolition within a year.

So if you've got a creative solution for an historic structure --- and lots of money --- I'll be glad to tell you who to contact. Money would be the key here.


Lucas County housed its first ne're-do-wells in an 18-by-20-foot log building erected sometime during the 1850s on Lot 6 of the block just west of the courthouse, according to Dan Baker's 1881 Lucas County history. That would put it west of the alley and east of the railroad tracks behind the Stanton-Ensley/Crocker buildings.

It was replaced during 1871 by a one-story brick building, 18-by-22-feet, built for $250 --- the first of three jails located where the old LEC now stands.

Between May and September of 1881, Lucas County supervisors spent $12,000 to erect an elaborate combination of sheriff's house and jail on the site of the 1871 building. This brick building, atop a stone foundation, consisted of a two-story 40-by-30-foot sheriff's residence facing south with a 37-by-36 jail annex to the north.

At that time, continuing well into the 20th century, it was common for Iowa county jails to serve as homes for the sheriff, making him chief jailer and, quite often, the sheriff's wife, the jailhouse cook. The sheriff's office was located in the courthouse.

The jail annex included on its first floor a vestibule, an office, a cell for male juveniles and, at the rear, four cells for male prisoners, divided by a hallway. The second flooor contained two cells for women, an office for the turnkey/guard and four auxiliary cells to be used if needed.

There was something dramatically wrong with the new jail, however --- but I've never done the research needed to find out exactly what. It became structurally unsound and beyond salvage during the opening years of the 20th century and, after about 35 years of use, was replaced in 1916 by the current building.

The contractor for the new jail was Andrew Jackson Stevens, who some years earlier had built the A.J. Stevens House in west Chariton that now is the centerpiece of the Lucas County Historical Society museum campus.

My great-aunt, Mary (Stevens) Myers, was a daughter of A.J. Stevens and perhaps because of that elements of the demolished 1881 jail were brought to my grandparents' farm and incorporated into a new produce storage cave that resembled a bunker designed to withstand nuclear attack. I've also heard the cells from the 1881 jail were incorporated into the 1916 building.

Family and other stories also hold that A.J. Stevens somehow miscalculated his bid on the new jail and that its construction bankupted him.

Whatever the case, he built a fine building that appears to be structurally sound although evidence of some slippage can be found at its southwest corner.

I'd like to think the old jail won't have to be torn down, but darned if I know what to do with it. And it doesn't seem likely that taking up a collection from among former inmates to preserve it has much of a future.


Nash said...

My wife and I have talked about buying the old building just to save it from demolition, but what then? Of course, we talk about buying a lot of buildings in town to save them or return them to their former glory. I think that if we were to win the lottery, we would go broke doing just that.

Frank D. Myers said...

Me, too. I want the "Good Luck" building, Stanton and Ensley-Crocker buildings, Charitone and the building east of it and the Eikenberry/Crozier building. Does that seem greedy? Now if any of us just had any money. Darn.

Mark McVey said...

I am afraid this is going to be a lost cause. If you look at it from the right angles, it is actually a very beautiful building, but I do not see anyone spending any amount of money for property that is that close to very busy railroad tracks. I would, I love trains, but I don't have any money, darn it! I was actually quite surprised on the Trenary building on Court, It looked like they were taking things out, getting ready for a renovation, but today I noticed it ceased to exist... Has modern society developed an aversion to bricks?