Monday, August 04, 2014

The jail that got away

Generally, I take photos of stuff that makes me happy --- and the demolition of Lucas County's old jail didn't. So I didn't take photos. Not a one (although others did).

County supervisors ordered the demolition and the deed was done during June and early July. The building did not give up easily, especially the jail portion, designed to withstand a direct hit. But give up eventually it did, and now the ground has settled and if you didn't know better you'd never know it had been here.

There's no one to blame, really. Although the building was structurally sound, it needed a new roof even if it were to be "mothballed." Advocates, imagination and vast sums of money, too. Although there were advocates, none of the others were forthcoming. 

Built in 1916, the jail --- third at this location --- came close to surviving for a century. It replaced a 35-year-old building of similar size and design that had been shoddily constructed and was in danger of falling down. Elements of the 1881 jail were recycled into the 1916 structure.

The architect was J.P. Cuth of Omaha and the contractor, Andrew Jackson Stephens of Chariton, who a few years earlier had built the Stephens House, now on the Lucas County Historical Society Museum campus.  A.J. was the father of my great-aunt, Mary (Stephens) Myers, and according to family stories miscalculated his bid on the jail and lost his shirt --- and the Stephens House --- as a result.

The building certainly was of significance, both historically and architecturally (it was listed during 2012 by Preservation Iowa as one of the state's 10 most endangered historic buildings). It was one of relatively few surviving combined jails and sheriff's (or jailer's) residences in the state.

Originally, the sheriff lived in the forepart of the house and his wife tended to the needs of prisoners housed to the rear. 

The jail was upgraded over the years and the former living quarters converted into offices for the Lucas County Law Enforcement Center. But the building was not ADA-compliant, nor could the jail be upgraded to meet 21st century standards. The building was emptied during 2011, when the new Law Enforcement Center in northwest Chariton opened.

Location --- right beside busy Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railroad tracks --- and the challenges of figuring out what to do with the bunker-like two-thirds of the building that had served as jail were major liabilities. No creative, let alone practical, repurposing ideas were forthcoming.

As a preservationist, I'd have liked to see the building saved. Had I been a county supervisor, however, I'd probably have voted to pull the plug. Some days there just aren't good solutions.

If interested in the old jail, you can read more and view both exterior and interior photos here and here.


Brenda said...


karen608 said...

Sad to see it go. Also the victorian house by the Truth Assembly of God church is being slowly taken apart/down by that church. I was told it had a well in the basement. How innovative was that? It would not freeze in the winter and no going outside for water back in the day.