So What Do You Do With An Old Jail?

The preserved Talbot County Jail serves as an office.

The question of what do you do with an old jail was before the Elkton Historic Architectural Review Committee (HARC) the other evening.  While the panel grappled with that and whether they should change a town regulation that would allow a proposed senior apartment complex to be built on the parcel, some on the panel argued that no one is interested in saving buildings like that.  So we thought we’d make a quick check around Maryland to see if other 21st century uses have been made of these structures.One acclaimed project that has received awards took place in Princess Anne, MD.  There the “Grey Eagle” confined notorious types in the Somerset County from 1857 to 1987.  Standing vacant for over a decade after it was replaced, the Town of Princess Anne considered demolishing the building in 1999 because of “its increasing decrepit state.”  However, that community saw economic development value in adaptive reuse, so the political leadership decided to restore the structure with the help of the Maryland Historical Trust and other stakeholders.  Today, this finely restored prison adds greatly value from a practical standpoint as it’s the headquarters for the Princess Anne Police Department. It also is a strong contributor to the historic district and, according to the town, “its’ a symbol of pride.”

A casual survey of other Maryland communities will find additional examples.  In Easton, a town that is particularly proud of its past and works to protect its architectural resources, the 19th century lockup still stands appearing the way it has since the 19th century.  It serves as Office for the States’ Attorney.  In Denton, Leonardtown, and elsewhere, you will also find them serving as offices, county jails and museums.  In a larger sphere beyond Maryland, they’ve been turned into restaurants and bed and breakfasts.

The developer appearing before the HARC committee recognized that there could be options beyond his initial proposal.  More than once, he reminded the officials that he was appearing before the committee to present an idea, get their reaction to this first proposal, and see what other ideas might exist to leverage the value of the historic structure.

The restored Princess Anne Jail in Somerset County, MD. Photo Credit: jimmywayne’s photostream


9 responses to “So What Do You Do With An Old Jail?

  1. Robert Moreland

    Reading this got me to thinking about an idea that might provide a use while not changing the outside of the building one bit (or very little perhaps). Elkton is an Arts and Entertainment district right? So why is it that while there are a few studios in and around the area there seems to be a general lack of available studio space for artists and the like? Several years ago I was a commercial sprinkler inspector working in the Baltimore county area and one of my customers had a commercial property that at the time, even before I entered the art world on a more regular basis myself, that I found to be a fascinating idea.

    The building was an old 4 story brick and mortar warehouse from back before warehouses became what they are today. The owner of the property had converted the building into artist spaces that could be leased. There were a large variety of artists who worked and produced their own varied kinds of art out of the building, each with his or her own working space.

    This issue got me to wondering why something like that couldn’t happen here. Now I’ve never had the pleasure of being a resident of this building so I really don’t know how it is laid out on the inside but I would imagine that someone with the right vision and resources could make something like this happen at a pretty reasonable cost.

    I can tell you from my own personal experience of going through my time at Cecil College that there are many young artists emerging from that school with great potential but no place to exercise it. At one time I had tossed around the idea of creating such a place myself as a sort of co-operative with friends and like minded people and I know there was a great deal of interest. Heck I would do it tomorrow if I had the wherewithal to do so financially. I would imagine that someone out there does and I know that I would certainly be banging down the door for a space if the cost was reasonable.

    This would give artists starting out a place to work while building their business and reputation, it would give purpose to what I bet is a pretty cool old building (in fact for most people I know that sort of funkiness would probably be a major draw to the location), and would potentially act as one of those “business incubator” ideas who’s buzz words seems to be all the rage.

    So why not support the Arts in the Arts and Entertainment district? Just a thought.

    • Robert, thanks so much for sharing your well-thought out ideas about what could be done with the old Jail, as well as how to the town could leverage its designation as a Maryland Arts and Entertainment District to preserve its cultural resources and stimulate economic development. It makes a lot of sense to us and we’re pleased to see constructive ideas put forward. Whenever there’s a proposal, a thorough discussion allows for effective decisions as all points of view are considered.

      Here’s a link to the Elkton Arts and Entertainment District managed by the Elkton Alliance.

      As we listened to the developers proposal, our position was that they should preserve most or as much of the old jail as possible and build the newer additon in the rear. That’s the way they approached it in Talbot County. They saved the old building and added newer office space, with an appropriate architectural style, in the rear.

      Thanks again.

  2. Robert Moreland

    Here are some articles which touch on exactly what I was talking about, although on a larger scale due to location.

    As you can see from the accompanying photos in many cases very little interior renovation is even needed other than what would have to be done to bring things up to code perhaps. But beyond that in a lot of cases the old, worn, industrial look and history provides a really cool one of a kind working environment and inspiration. Mostly what is needed is a fair amount of enclosed open space in which to work and create, some smaller and some larger depending on the craft.

    Beyond the old jail I’d be willing to bet that there are other buildings and properties that could benefit in this way as well.

    • Most interesting Robert. I just checked out the links.

      It’s exactly these sorts of adaptive resuses that prserve the fabric of an old community and allows them to create town centers that are viable and can compete with the big box stores for those that do these sorts of things have a unique ambiance and product that Walmart and others can’t offer. Thanks so much for sharing these constructive ideas. YOu would make a good advocate for arts & entertainment districts and historic cultural resources and you’d make a good advocate to have on some of the committees responsible for implementing and/or protecting these types of valuable resources. It’s always good to hear positive and constructive ideas put forth and often as the leadership is making these decisions there’s not an examination of the rull range of possibilities.

  3. Mike and Robert:
    Check out this link to the Goggleworks in Reading, PA.
    An abandoned factory was turned into artist studios and galleries. Although of a scale beyond our little jail (to wit, a whole city block), yet the idea can be scale down per Robert’s suggestion. I agree with Mike that additions should be put on the back. This brings back our discussion of a focal point for downtown Elkton, and arts and artisans will create its own synergy and energy. It could even have an ironic cast with the prison economy so prevalent in town, the Court buildings, bail bondmen, and tattoo parlor.

    Rev. Bert Jicha

    • Thanks Rev. Jicha for sharing your perspective on the old jail proposal. That’s an interesting link and it does show what can be done to leverage cultural resources and the arts to build up a competitive downtown economy. The developer approached the matter very professionally, informing the board that he was there with a draft concept plan and to get some idea of what the historic district commission expected. Based on that input from the historic district commission, they working on a plan to incorporate the feedback they received that the old building should be saved.

  4. The name of the place that I was referring to in Baltimore popped into my head today, it’s called Mill Center. Here’s a link to it. Not a whole lot of photos though.

    One of the things that can make corporate or business entities hesitant to deal with things like the arts and artists is that artists in many cases aren’t your typical 9-5, white-washed, business suited, sterile office type people. They are often odd and strange and don’t follow the same hours as most people. This can take some getting used to and can be off putting for some people. They don’t keep tidy little work cubicles in most cases, they are messy cluttered people. A lot of the time this doesn’t fit into the normal business model and I think that this is one of the reasons that these types of uses don’t get thought of, it’s a matter of association.

    However, there are communities out there that time and time again show that this kind of cooperative interaction does in fact work. Right off the top of my head I can think of several examples, New Hope, PA., Port Townsend, WA. being two places that jump right to mind for me as I have been to both on several occasions. These are both thriving art communities that both at the same time have that old home town feel to them but that also don’t easily fit into a box.

    The oddness of places like the old jail and old factory and warehouse buildings are exactly the kinds of places that attract this sort of creativeness. I was thinking about what Rev. Jicha said about focal points and I had a thought on that. “It could even have an ironic cast with the prison economy so prevalent in town” I think that he’s actually on to something here. This could be something that could potentially be played up to and extent and even become something of a badge of honor if you will.

    As I’ve said before I can’t say what the inside looks like or how it is set up but if the general feel and layout could be kept, perhaps incorporating the “prison theme” into things like the doors to the separate spaces being the old prison bars and doors I think it could be pretty cool. I don’t know what it would take to do it but I imagine that individual doors could be re-keyed somehow for separate keys but keeping those big old prison type keys. Carrying that big old key around on your key chain? I could see something like that becoming a badge of honor and a conversation starter or icon for the art scene in Elkton, immediately recognizable as someone who is in the art circle and who is a “member” of “The Jail” art building.

    I just see a really potential “coolness” factor there.

  5. We certainly do not want to discourage building a senior apartment complex in Elkton, residential density in walking distance of Main Street will be a great attribute and contribute to bringing life to the area. it may be that this is not the best place for it, and that another parcel that can be more fully utilized and re-claimed from dereliction will add greater value in terms of new construction and residential density discussed above. Perhaps one of the brownfield parcels on Bridge Street can be considered for a project like this. I’m glad Robert picked up on my suggestion of an ironic prison theme and it is not at all implausible, you only have to look to Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia where they fully exploit the prison theme to the point of selling clothing, mugs and hats, and hosting one of the most elaborate Halloween haunted expositions (haunted house is inadequate to describe it) on the East Coast.

    I wish the proximity of the river in Elkton could be better focused on but I do not see how. It seems that Elkton’s greatest chance is to look to history for its focus and to the medical/health complex developing around Union . However, if the health industry continues to gobble up land and houses we might end up like Wilmington as a commuter city with workers fleeing urbanity every night. I think a focus on arts and artisans, and historic focii of 1812, mills, prisons, the munitions and fireworks industry, and the unique marriage industry (with accompanying antique stores and good restaurants) could make this a drive through destination like North East, and if enough synergy is produced, an endpoint destination.

    • Rev. Jicha, you and Robert both make good points for Elkton to consider, if its’ committed to historic preservation and an arts & entertainment district. To have success with revitliaization of old town centers, there’s got to be some sort of vision for what you want it to be and then there’s the hard work to implement that vision and plan. Is is to be a town center with lots of modern buildings and even more parking lots or do you try to preserve the fabric of the old community?

      There is value in preserving old buldings and working for repurposing the old structures, which is what the town’s zoning laws recognize — you should preserve your old structures. There are so many uses for these old buldings and they create a destination environment that Walmart can’t replicate.

      In traveling around I see so many adaptive reuses of these old jails from B & B to eateries. Beyond what they’ve done with them on the Chesapeake, we’ve seen them turned into successful Bed & Breakfasts in high-end destination spots like Newport Rhode Island.

      I thought the developer approached this most professionally. He said he was appearing before the historic district board to get feedback on a draft idea and see what would be acceptable. That’s the way it should be done. Right now, according to the town planning department, they’re working with the developer on a second proposal that takes the matters pointed out by the historic district commission into consideraton. Imagine that if they save an old Elkton building, while also getting the proejct. What an excellent outcome for Elkton and that’s exactly what a historic district commission should be doing. We’ll see as this plays out.

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