With words alone, Bob Marazzani can paint a detailed picture of life in old Martinez, the city where he was born and raised. His tales are absolutely vivid – full, rich, and colorful. A fixture in Martinez history, he draws parallels to Mayberry of The Andy Griffith Show, and his stories reveal so much more depth to our quiet city tucked among the hills and along the riverbank.
I met Bob because we are both ardent supporters of the efforts to preserve the Historic Contra Costa County Jail. If I am an avid supporter, Bob is passionate. He abhors what he sees as the slow but continual erosion of the city he loves. Over the years historic buildings, like the 1903 Historic Jail, have fallen victim to what has been deemed progress. He has seen a lot and is not certain it meets his definition of progress, but the potential loss of the Jail has spurred Bob to action.
The Old Jail, you see, holds a special place in Bob’s heart. There was a time many years back that, as a very young and high-spirited man, Bob found himself in residence there a time or two. Looking back, the aging but sturdy bars left him with more than a passing appreciation for the legal system and the impressive structure itself. Having survived his youthful exuberance, Bob reflects warmly on his experiences in the Old Jail. His stories are at once intriguing and apt to make you smile, if not laugh outright.
Bob can tell you about the time he and a fellow inmate took advantage of their kitchen assignment to “cook up” some serious fire water. Or how he, as a trustee, was regularly allowed to leave and run the jail’s errands about town – maybe stopping for a candy bar his way back. No one ever doubted that he would return “home” to jail. Bob might spin the tale of how his father, Geno, sought to remedy his son’s culinary deprivation during lock up – with “contraband” homemade Italian food.
Bob has nothing but good things to say about the Sheriff and his deputies who operated the Jail in his time. They were good people, he says of each and every one. Inmates were treated with respect, afforded their dignity, and managed fairly. For the most part, Bob and his fellow detainees did their time in relative peace. But there’s always that one time, right? If you run into Bob, ask him about the time a couple inmates attempted a jail break.
The architectural and historical treasure that is Contra Costa’s 1903 County Jail stands today, greeting visitors who exit the County Administration building on Pine Street. Its Vermont Granite exterior, as rough-hewn as the characters who would occupy its interior, is at once imposing and comforting. We are reminded that the Jail was built not only to keep the errant within, but also to let its public feel safe. It was constructed to be strong and, at the ripe age of 118 years, it seems there is little room to doubt its ability to continue in service.
In recent years the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted to remove the Historic 1903 Jail and its 1944 Annex from the County’s inventory by way of demolition. Thereafter the Architectural Preservation Foundation of Contra Costa County (APFCCC) formed to preserve this National Historic Registry treasure. The County’s Supervisors stayed the wrecking ball and agreed to work with the APF toward preservation. The building’s future, however, is once again uncertain.
Recently the County’s representatives abruptly halted preservation endeavors. The APFCCC had been working with the County, the City of Martinez and a historic property developer on a plan to save the Jail. The parties met, conferred, and developed a viable plan for preservation. Until last week, it appeared that there were just a few terms and a cost remaining to be resolved. Then the County abruptly shut down negotiations. In brief correspondence, the City of Martinez was given notice without warning or explanation. Discussion of demolishing the Historic Jail will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, February 9 at 9:00 a.m.
This unsettles long-time residents, history lovers, and those with an interest in preserving our past. People like Bob Marazzani.
These days Bob is settled, having enjoyed a full and law-abiding life, Bob wants to see the Historic Jail and its Annex repurposed and given a new life as well. He believes there are many ways that this structure can continue to serve the local population and descendants of citizens whose taxes paid for its creation. The jail is a part of Bob’s history, but he also sees it as a monument to good days gone by. Simpler times, when people scratched out a life in this small town and could appreciate their existence.
He hopes, as do many others who share his sentiments, that our elected governance can appreciate the edifice for both what it has been and can yet be to the community. The 1903 County Jail is an example of outstanding craftsmanship that has endured more than a century. It boasts a unique character that is rich in historic details. The jail is a part of Contra Costa’s cultural legacy, and may yet serve its public once again. Those of us who share Bob’s vision certainly hope the jail will, once again, contribute to the Jail’s preservation by offering comments before the Board of Supervisors at its meeting on Tuesday, February 9, 2021.
– Annette Avila Nunez
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