Historic Old Jail could be preserved

MARTINEZ, Calif. – The historic Old Jail may be marked with graffiti, but it is not forgotten. Once targeted for destruction, the Architectural Preservation Foundation of Contra Costa County (APF) reports that because of community support, there is a good chance it may be saved for posterity, presuming talks with county continue to go well.

“It’s really positive. We’re in settlement talks with the county now and it is going very well now,” Melissa Jacobson, APF president remarked. “It is very important to have that community support, and we are thankful for it.”

Jacobson said there were inaccuracies in the original environmental draft impact report that came to light when people in the community sent letters “poking holes in it”.

APF members will be looking for more help from the public during the holidays. First to participate in an oral history project, and also to join them in a clean-up day at the Old Jail site. Jacobson said she believes the County Public Works Department will be carefully cleaning the graffiti off of the building soon.

Preservation of the building gives the community a material manifestation of local history. ARF is also working to preserve the experiences of those times too.

“For this Oral History Project, we need anyone with knowledge, information or experiences that are related to the jail. Nurses, sheriffs, cooks, suppliers, people who were involved with the jail in one way or another to share that experience,” Jacobson commented. “The value of that building is that it allows us to tell true stories about the lives of all the people who interfaced with that building.”

The 3,761 square-foot “old” jail and classical revival style courthouse at 625 Court Street were completed in1903 by the same builder. They were designed as a civic complex by William Mosser & Sons, are finished with hand-chiseled Vermont granite, and are on the National Register of Historic Places list.

The courthouse (now Finance Building) was updated in 2017 for safety reasons at s cost of about $5 million. The jail is inextricably bound to Sheriff R.R. Veale’s illustrious 37-year career in the County.

One example of the kinds of stories that reveal the unexpected is the fact that Sheriff Veale’s daughter Leila, actually cooked food for the prisoners, and became the first female deputized sheriff. “They (prisoners) said it was good,” commented Jacobson.

“From the stories, we can talk about the women who were in the jail. Why were they there? How did they get there? And the idea of justice in our county,” she remarked.

When County plans to take a wrecking ball the Old jail came to light, local historian Harriett Burt, said the time may be right for a community project like this. “The needless destruction of a historic building for which there are uses is something that today’s residents are much more sensitive to,” Burt observed.

Since the mid-1900s, “People’s attitudes have evolved. Now there is much more appreciation for the value of knowing, and seeing history…. Destruction of the Curry Mansion was a wake-up call.”

The Curry Mansion stood on the 651 Pine Street site where the 12-story county administration building was constructed around 1965. Now, the County now has plans to tear it down.

Jacobson said ARF could not have been able to be this close to an agreement without the hard work of the board of directors, including Cheryll Glover, Harland Strickland, Attorney Nancy Wainwright. Dean McLeod and his wife Kristin Carlock, also helped to found ARF before moving out of state.

“When it gets preserved and it is there, all of the people who care about the preservation of local history will see that their support made a difference,” Jacobson predicted. She expects ARF will meet with the County again in December, and hopes anyone who has an interest in historic preservation of the Old Jail will visit facebook.com/save.our.jail.martinez/ to learn more.

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