County to make repairs to historic jail, courthouse

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By Jenny Hartley

Two Lancaster County national landmarks are on their way to getting some much needed maintenance.

Camden architect Jody Munnerlyn, who specializes in historic preservation, is examining the historic jail building on West Gay Street and the Lancaster County Courthouse on Main Street.

Munnerlyn will give cost estimates for the repairs needed at both buildings, and then the county will hire a contractor to fix them, said Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis.

Jail's history

The jail was built in 1823, designed by Robert Mills, who also designed the Lancaster courthouse and the original plans for the Washington Monument. The jail is listed as a National Landmark building, the highest classification for buildings by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The designation has to be signed by the president.

The medieval English style building has brick vaulted ceilings. It's made of hand-hewn stones and pine logs and beams, said Lancaster historian Lindsay Pettus.

Its roof was replaced after a fire believed to have been started by Union troops in February 1865. Since the county was bankrupt in the aftermath of the Civil War, it took at least a year to raise funds to rebuild the roof.

"It wasn't rebuilt the way it should have been," Willis said.

That 140-plus-year-old roof is beginning to shift, he said.

It will need to be stabilized with cables. The building is also retaining some moisture, and French drains may be needed to drain water away from it.

"No one has a clue what we've got for a foundation under that building," Willis said.

The old jail now houses Lancaster County Emergency Management. The county's inmates are housed at the Lancaster County Detention Center on Pageland Highway.

It's actually the third jail in Lancaster County's history, Pettus said.

The first was built in the Waxhaws, likely to house Revolutionary War prisoners.

The second was built around 1800, and then it was recommended that another be built in 1820.

Three years later, at a cost of $8,000, the current building was constructed.

Mills designed his without a dungeon, a popular feature of jails during the period, because he thought they were unhealthy for prisoners.

In 1979, 11 prisoners died in a fire at the jail. Its days as a working jail were over.

Historic courthouse

The Lancaster County Courthouse, also listed as a National Landmark, was built in 1828 for $13,050, Pettus said. It contains an estimated 300,000 bricks and features vaulted ceilings.

After it was complete, it was considered the finest courthouse in the state, Pettus said.

Lancaster, known as Lancasterville then, was a village of a few wood houses, stores and a school, so the grand brick building was likely the talk of the town, and villagers probably watched its construction with great interest.

There are drawings in a downstairs room of the courthouse found during a major renovation in 1963, Pettus said. They may have been created by Confederate soldiers imprisoned there by Union troops, or from prisoners moved there after the jail's roof burned in 1865, Pettus said. Those drawings are now preserved on the wall under glass.

Other restorations were done in 1948, in the early 1980s and 1989.

But the building needs roofing work, as one can see "blue sky" from some parts of the attic, Willis said. It was last reroofed in 1963.

"We may be looking at an entire reroofing," Willis said.

The courthouse windows are also rotting, and it may need some foundation work. The county recently removed trees from around the building, which were damaging the foundation.

Work on the two buildings likely won't be cheap, but money to fix them will be well spent, Willis and Pettus agree.

"These buildings are absolutely amazing," Willis said. "We can't let these things get any worse."

Pettus said the buildings definitely need some work, and he's glad the county is doing something about it.

"I think we can be especially proud of having two Robert Mills buildings in Lancaster County," Pettus said. "These buildings are important not only to Lancaster County residents, but to the people of the United States."

Contact Jenny Hartley at 283-1151 or jhartley@thelancasternews.com