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What to do with an old jail?

April 26, 2008
By GEORGE EARL, Enterprise Staff Writer
ELIZABETHTOWN — Major Richard C. Cutting, the Essex County Sheriff’s Office Jail Administrator, filled the doorway of the old Essex County jail as he entered for what he said seemed like “the first time in a long time.”

The old jail, built in 1854, is the second oldest the state and was used until October of 2007. The now abandoned structure, with a functional existence that spanned a period from the Civil War to the nation’s present war in Iraq, is subject to many different visions for the future — the most prominent being demolition to create a parking lot and, possibly, future office space for the county at a later date.

Cutting provided a walking tour of the penal history of Essex County, illuminating different parts of the riveted steel interior, with stories about prison breaks and daily life, as well as the last county hanging and even a murder of a prison guard in the 1940s.

“He fell here,” Cutting said, as he extended his arms to trace the area of the fallen officer. The prisoner and an accomplice escaped, but were soon tracked down,

“They’re now serving 50-to-life,” Cutting said.

As the administrator of the old jail, Cutting said he gets a little nostalgic once in a while.

“This was where we did the dishes,” Cutting said, pointing to a small cramped kitchen. “The meals were cooked in the nursing home and brought over, and before that, the sheriff’s wife did the cooking.”

Cutting said he would miss the old jail if it were torn down.

Nevertheless, the Essex County Board of Supervisors unanimously maintain that the old jail has to come down.

“It’s a building with no use other than being an old building,” said vice chairman Ronald Jackson. Two engineers retained by the county were consulted in making that determination, Jackson said, as well as Essex County Department of Public Works Supervisor Fred Buck, .

“We looked into saving it. It’s just not feasible,” said Buck, though he admitted that in making that determination they had not hired any architects.

The board has not determined what, beyond a parking lot, would replace the old jail, or what a new building would cost. The future of the old jail site hangs on many other considerations, including the planned relocation of the nearby Horace Nye nursing home, which could open up space for county offices. What is known is the estimated cost of destruction of the old jail. The board of supervisors voted to barrow $350,000 for that purpose through the issuance of bonds. Part of that cost would go toward disentangling the interconnected infrastructure between the jail and the connected probation department that will remain in front.

“You’re due to discover that the jail cells are part of the necessary structure. The best case scenario for keeping the building would mean having a records storage facility with the cells still intact,” said Noel Merrihew, Elizabethtown town supervisor.

“We need additional space now, and we need to knock down the old jail before it falls down,” Merrihew said, also dismissing a proposal to use it as a museum by saying, “I have a museum in town, I don’t need another one.”

“The next agreed step is to put out RFP’s (requests for proposals) to take down the old jail; make that a parking space and take a moment to pause and review time lines of other alternatives before moving ahead,” Merrihew said.

Such a plan is not without precedent.

“The county wanted to make Hubbard Hall into a parking lot,” said Barbara Krieger, co-owner of the Adirondack Ranch Country Store, formerly Hubbard Hall. Krieger and her husband Greg had different plans for the building located near the county offices on Court Street. They bought the building in 1996, creating a boutique general store and gourmet eatery.

“It would be great to do tours and allow kids to see it,” she said of the old county jail.

Before the building can be torn down, a state Environmental Quality Review and a public hearing are required. Those dates have yet to be set.

Franklin County also faced a predicament over what to do with its old county jail but found a way to reuse the building at a nominal cost, according to the Franklin County senior records management clerk, Debbi Leabo-King.

“The county had architects come through and give structural and feasibility advice. When they refurbished our jail, the structure of the cells were also considered support. They put in steel support beams as they removed cells,” Leabo-King said.

“It has turned out beautifully,” Leabo-King added, referring to the transformed building. “It is a highly efficient records storage area and an asset to the county”

The project required approximately $250,000 to complete and more than $200,000 of that amount was secured through state grants. The renovation gave the county new office space, a records storage area and a “shredding room” to get rid of old documents, according to Leabo-King.

Essex County does not appear to have benefited from an independent expert analysis, such as the one in Franklin County, to consider the various options available for the creation of new office space, including reuse of the existing jail, and the comparative costs of such proposals.

“To the best of my knowledge a basic adaptive reuse analysis was not done,” said Steve Englehart, Executive Director of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

State Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, said the old jail building is an important part of the historical architecture of the public row.

“If there is a way to save these old buildings, I lean on the side of saving them — once these old treasures are gone, they are gone forever.”

Sayward said that “some time ago, maybe a year, I told the board it would be really nice to keep the old building.” Sayward also questioned the timing of such an expensive proposal.

“People are hurting in New York, oil prices are up, they are scared of the burdens being placed upon them, if there are choices to be made I would think they would wait ... they just put up a new jail.”

Also, former security guards reflect on the old days at the jail with mixed feelings.

“There was something about the sound of the old doors when they closed and locked, there was no way around it; it was jail. It’s not like the new jail,” said Henry Hommes, the Essex County Sheriff.

“On the one hand it would be great to show people, but the city is in such a need of space. Though I’ve heard that it would make a great movie set. I did think there would be more of a public interest in keeping it; that just hasn’t happened,” Hommes said.

Bill Garrison, the town justice of Elizabethtown, said he has little sentiment for collecting old buildings, but tempered his stance as he reflected on the building he worked in as a guard in the 1960s and 70s.

“The Sheriff’s wife was the Matron, she did all the cooking for the prisoners. Their favorite meal was fried bologna, I could never understand why they liked it so much.”

Article Photos

Many sparse, steel-clad quarters, like this one seen above, still have original bed frames, porcelain sinks and toilets.
(Enterprise photo — George Earl)



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