Historical review bodes well for old Jefferson Co. jail

August 13, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Demolition of the old Jefferson County Jail would have an adverse effect on Charles Town's historic district and the historic Jefferson County Courthouse, according to a historical review of the jail that was released Thursday.

According to the review, demolition of the jail would:

  • Damage the north facade of the courthouse. The 85-year-old jail, at the intersection of George and Liberty streets, is connected to the back of the courthouse. The report does not elaborate on the damage that would be caused to the courthouse.

  • Result in physical destruction of part of the town's historical district.

  • Change the character of the town's historic district setting.

  • Change the character of the courthouse's setting.

  • Change the character of the Old Opera House setting. The Old Opera House is a playhouse near the jail.

The historical review, conducted by URS Corp., of Gaithersburg, Md., was completed as a result of a ruling by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr.


The Jefferson County Commissioners voted last year to tear down the jail, but Steptoe issued an injunction to stop the demolition. The injunction cannot be lifted until the commissioners call for a historical review of the jail, Steptoe ruled.

The commissioners have proposed tearing down the jail and building new offices at the site. But a group of local residents has been fighting the move, saying the jail should be preserved because of its architecture and because of a series of trials that were held in Charles Town in 1922 for miners involved in a labor uprising referred to as the Battle of Blair Mountain in southern West Virginia.

At one point, Steptoe ruled the commissioners could tear down the jail because of a bill that was passed in the Legislature that freed local governments from a requirement to conduct historical reviews on buildings.

Jefferson County residents Jim Whipple and Carol Gallant appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Following the high court's decision, lawyers on both sides gave different interpretations of how the commissioners could proceed.

The findings of the historical review are not meant to show the county is right or wrong in its plan to tear down the jail, said Geoffrey Henry, an architectural historian who wrote the report.

It simply shows that a legislative rule specifying standards and procedures for administering state historic preservation programs are not being met, said Henry and Commissioner Greg Corliss.

Having the historical review conducted ensures the correct process is followed, Henry said in an telephone interview after the commissioners' meeting Thursday.

The review also is designed to lay out the issues "in a factual, nonjudgmental way," Henry said.

Despite the findings of the review, the commissioners can still tear down the jail, Henry said.

The review suggests ways the commissioners can reduce the impact of the demolition of the jail.

Those suggestions include:

  • Conduct a feasibility study that would assess the physical condition of the jail and the feasibility of rehabilitating the building.

  • Take photographs of the building before it is torn down and find copies of the original architectural drawings, which are believed to be at the Library of Congress.

  • Incorporate features of the jail into the design of a new building. That would involve identifying and salvaging significant historical features of the building.

  • Dedicate a space in the new facility for an historical exhibit of the jail.

The commissioners discussed whether they could change their decision on tearing down the jail.

Commissioner James G. Knode said he recalled Steptoe saying that the commissioners could not change their vote. Commission President Al Hooper said he believes the commissioners may be able to change their decision.

Corliss said after the meeting that he thinks there are enough votes to save the jail. Corliss and Morgan have long supported saving the jail.

Although Hooper initially voted against razing the jail, he has said he could accept a government office plan that saves the jail.

Hooper could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

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