Warren County is trying to preserve its 120-year-old jail, sheriff’s office and living quarters, while moving ahead with plans to build a new $50 million facility.
The historic jail, sheriff’s office and living quarters at 312 E. Silver St. in Lebanon is part of the East End Historic District in Lebanon, but has fallen into disrepair since the existing jail opened in 1975 and the building was decommissioned in 2013.
The two-story building, featuring a Richardsonian Romanesque sandstone facade, was built in 1890, with the sheriff’s quarters commissioned in 1893.
Commissioner Dave Young, Archivist and Records Manager Jen Haney Conover and other advocates see the old building as a tourist attraction, another stop on tours of downtown Lebanon’s historic structures.
“When I see that, I see history. I see some really cool opportunities,” Young said during an Aug. 29 discussion.” It fits right in.”
Durng the discussion, County Administrator Tiffany Zindel pointed out getting the building ready for tours or special events could be costly.
“It’s a business decision. Do you want to be in that business?” Zindel asked.
By approving $160,00 for demolition and repairs, the commissioners took the first step toward reopening the old building to the public.
“Community Ties & Alibis” is an exhibit currently on display in the central lobby of the Warren County Administrative Center, 406 Justice Dr. in Lebanon.
The exhibit explains how the old jail - the third built on land at Silver and East streets donated for this purpose - was constructed “in response to regular complaints from the Grand Jury that the previous jail was unsafe and inadequate for the purposes of Warren County.”
While dusty and dark, the two-story Silver Street structure is basically sound, with cells and common areas much as they were when inhabited by inmates. Even some of the graffiti on the walls is a century old, Conover said during her presentation to the commissioners.
Earlier this month, Conover, assistant archivist Jennifer Baker and facilities manager Trevor Hearn toured the building, where the county sheriff and his family also lived until 1960.
While living in a county jail today seems unlikely, in the 19th century it was not unusual, especially in small rural areas, where the sheriff also served as jailer.
“Typically jails were much smaller and with smaller inmate numbers. It may have put someone there 24 hours a day when staffing was extremely low. You will also see that the Sheriff’s wife was often times the cook for the inmates,” Sheriff Larry Sims said in an email.
Standing near a fireplace in the master bedroom, Baker explained a wall was all that separated the sheriff and his wife from the jail, leaving them within earshot of inmates.
“They could still hear things going on in the jail from this bedroom,” she said.
Last week, the commissioners continued to debate over what they were looking for in a construction manager for the new jail.
What qualifications were important to the project? Should it be built in the county complex or on land outside Lebanon? What accommodations should be made for criminals driven by addictions to heroin or other drugs.
But they have decided to explore preservation of the old Silver Street facilities.
In coming months, Hearn expects to oversee demolition of newer sections of the building, roof repairs and removal of mold and other contamination from the building.
“Once that’s done, we can move forward with conversations about what we are going to do with this wonderful building,” Conover said.