Divide over old jail, sheriff’s house grows

Residents say buildings reflect bygone era; county sees inefficient spaces

The Cole County Courthouse sits at the intersection of Monroe and High streets in downtown Jefferson City. On the north side next to the alley (foreground) is the old county jail and sheriff's residence.

The Cole County Courthouse sits at the intersection of Monroe and High streets in downtown Jefferson City. On the north side next to the alley (foreground) is the old county jail and sheriff's residence. Photo by Kris Wilson.

Preservationists are concerned the county may demolish a piece of Cole County’s history, while county officials say the old County Jail and Sheriff’s House is too expensive to keep and just doesn’t meet existing and future needs.

The County Commission is scheduled to possibly take a final vote Wednesday on what to do with the two buildings.

Last month, commissioners looked at two plans.

One plan calls for the remodeled sallyport to be left on the ground floor, and the three floors above it torn down and rebuilt.

Officials with Architects Alliance told commissioners that this plan would cost approximately $1.6 million. There would be 4,700 square feet of court/office space available with this plan and 700 square feet for a lobby.

The other plan would keep the existing shell of the jail and sheriff’s house in place, fix the three floors above the sallyport and develop a plan to access each floor since the floors in the old jail do not align with the courthouse.

This plan would cost approximately $775,000 and offers 3,300 square feet of court/office space and 600 square feet for a lobby.

It could take 10-12 months to complete the plan to tear down the old buildings and six months to complete the plan working within the current structures.

Both plans would take about three months to design and one month to complete the bid process.

All this comes as the commission tries to develop a master plan for how best to use county building space for the next five to 20 years.

Commissioners have agreed they’d like to move the county assessor and the public defender’s offices out of the Carnegie Building and either use it for storage or try to get rid of it.

Officials with the Missouri River Regional Library have indicated they may be interested in the building.

Commissioners have also said part of the new space should go for a new courtroom.

“When we first started talking about this, I was leaning toward keeping the shell and retaining the outside,” said Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher. “Then we found the floors don’t line up and the usable space got diminished if we worked within the shell. Tearing down the buildings provides more space, and while it is more cost, it’s not that much. Tearing down and building a new area gives us a more flexible floor plan. I like the idea of saving the old jail, but with not as much usable space, we won’t gain anything. We need a 2,200-foot courtroom, and there’s no way to do it if we keep the shell.

“I understand the historic concerns, but I think the Missouri State Penitentiary is more historical than this jail. Also, the shell plan did not include new windows and that would add another six figures to the cost. We’ve got to be good stewards of taxpayer money, and we have to spend it wisely. There’s plenty to be discussed on this issue, and we may not make a final decision Wednesday.”

Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle said since their last meeting late last month, he’s been exploring other options that might help the space problem.

“I’ve been looking at what other properties are out there to expand county offices and possibly not do anything with the old jail and sheriff’s house,” he said. “We’ve got to look at parking and accessibility for the public and our staff. I’m just trying to think outside of the box. We want to keep county offices downtown, but you usually don’t get quick responses when property is currently for sale.”

This is not the first time concerns about the future of the old jail and sheriff’s house have come about.

In May 2010, as the new county jail was being completed, community organizations and individuals came out in support of the 1936 additions to the county courthouse, saying they were essential to the streetscape and the preservation of city heritage.

The Missouri Preservation Alliance added the Cole County Jail and Sheriff’s House to its Most Endangered Historic Places List. And the city’s Historic Preservation Commission named the property a local Landmark in 2010, but it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

They were designed to blend with the county courthouse, built in 1894.

The Sheriff’s House is one of the few remaining structures to represent a bygone era, when it was common for jailers to reside with the jail, said Steve Veile, president of the Historic City of Jefferson. “It used to be quite common in Missouri for this combination facility to exist. But Cole County has one of the few remaining structures of this kind in the state,” Veile said.

Preservationists say they don’t want history to repeat itself and have a historic structure disappear.

“We hope it (the jail and sheriff’s house) will not go the way of the city jail,” Veile said.

A stone structure and predecessor for housing inmates to the current jail, the city jail once stood at the corner of Monroe and McCarty streets where the Veterans Plaza now is and was demolished even though preservationists argued with city officials it should be kept and used as a tourist center.

The Historic City of Jefferson was formed in the aftermath of the old city jail battle in 1983, Veile added.

“It’s one of those incidents that lives in infamy,” he said. “Everybody remembers it, and everybody regrets it. We don’t want to see that happen again.”

Supporters of the preservation of the old jail and sheriff’s house say the loss of the stone buildings would be a detriment to aesthetics, tourism dollars and possibly the county budget.

But, Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger said there was one thing that makes him believe the new facility is the only way to go.

“The driver behind this is a large courtroom,” he said. “The architects have said if you keep the shell of the buildings then you can’t have the large courtroom. Tearing down and building is the only way to allow this. The other option is to leave them as they are and not do anything at all. Courtroom space is what we need. Not having the courtroom space is no benefit to just renovate for office space.”

Ellinger also said that they had looked at possibly moving offices at the courthouse annex and using that space for a courtroom.

“While it was possible, it wouldn’t be functional,” he said. “The building is built using columns, and that’s not good to have those in the middle of a courtroom. Also, there are a number of ADA issues we’d have to deal with in the crosswalk between the annex and courthouse. We talked about this with the sheriff and the judges, and none of them thought this was a workable option.”

Wednesday’s meeting can be viewed by going to colecounty.org and click on the “watch commission meetings live” link.

Related opinion:

Question: What is the distinction between a structure that has historic value versus being merely old? And how does that distinction apply to the jail/sheriff’s house?

Point: Old, historic are not synonymous; community must look to future

Counterpoint: People who lived, worked or spent time in buildings make them historic


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments