Behind a whitened and deteriorating brick wall off High Street stands the old Albemarle County jail that looks seasoned even compared with the many historic buildings that surround it in Court Square.
The building that was the site of the hanging of a former city mayor after he was convicted of killing his wife could soon be the home of a museum that tells the history of Charlottesville and Albemarle.
The Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to direct county staff to collaborate with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society to develop a lease for the old jail. The historical society would like to lease the building to preserve it and turn the space into a museum.
“We are the only community, county, or city in the state that doesn’t have a museum that tells the story of the community,” said Steven Meeks, president of the historical society. “This would help fill a need that we have and a need for the county to find a use for the facility.”
The first section of the jail was built in 1876, followed by the addition of an exterior wall and a jailer’s house in 1886, according to the historical society. The jail was used to house inmates by the county until 1974.
According to Meeks, the history of the building makes it an ideal location for a museum.
“It’s a really unique building,” Meeks said in an interview after last week’s meeting. “Aside from the courthouse, it’s the second-most important building the county owns. And while it has its limitations for exhibit purposes, it is a good use for that facility.”
Meeks said the building is “pretty sound” and “water-tight,” but there are some mechanical issues in the interior of the building, and the exterior wall is of concern because it has been infiltrated with water. For the building to be transformed into a museum that meets the society’s standards, it would cost about $1 million, Meeks said.
County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd asked whether he thought the historical society would be able to raise that amount of money through private donations.
“It’s not something we’re going to be able to do in a week,” Meeks said. “It’s a multi-year project that [we would] phase in.”
The county currently spends on average $10,500 a year to maintain the building. Maintenance has included vegetation and pest control, exterior painting and lead paint abatement. Boyd said he would support continuing to pay those costs but could not see additional funding happening.
“I’m in favor of it as long as we’re not talking about any money,” Boyd said. “I really don’t know if we could help you out much with the million dollars.”
Meeks said he foresees visually driven permanent exhibits in the space that would evolve around the formation of Albemarle and Charlottesville and the history of jails. He said they would try to furnish the space like it once was. Meeks said the museum also could be used as an event space for art shows and other social gatherings.
The historical society sponsors occasional tours of the jail but it has not had any this year.
Meeks said people have been excited to see the inside of the building and learn more about the history of the area.
“There is a great desire, I think, on the part of visitors to our community to see more than just Monticello [and] the Downtown Mall,” Meeks said. “The jail could be a very vital part of the interpretation of Court Square and the history there, and also I think it has the potential to become another major attraction to our community.”
Supervisor Jane Dittmar agreed.
“We do have museums site-specific to Monticello and Ash Lawn and one in the Rotunda for the university, but this would be a general one to honor our heritage, so I think that’s very exciting,” Dittmar said.
Meeks and the historical society will now work with county staff on the details of the lease, which will then be brought to the Board of Supervisors for a vote at a future meeting.
Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress