Historic Jail’s fate hangs in limbo after catastrophic water event

By Emily Bialkowski

Caledonia Argus


A cost estimate on water damage caused by bursted sprinkler pipes in the Historic Houston County Jail is not yet available, but it’s safe to say the event will undoubtedly influence the future of the architecturally significant, but empty, structure.

On April 11 Fire Department personnel notified Houston County Dispatch that water was leaking from the Historic Jail located on South Marshall St. in Caledonia. County staff responded and found that an estimated 300,000 gallons of water had soaked the entire building from top to bottom after sprinkler system pipes defrosted and burst. The building had been heated all winter, Human Resources Director Tess Arrick-Kruger, told the County Board during its April 15 meeting.

“The thing in question is why did the pipes freeze when for the last two winters there was no problem. The insurance adjuster said he is seeing problems similar to this all over the state due to the unusually cold winter,” Arrick-Kruger said.

The response to the catastrophe was swift and included shutting off gas to the building and asking the city to locate and shut off the water main feeding the old jail. The Fire Department supplied pumps to empty the basement, and the water was drained by 2:30 Friday afternoon. All of the structure’s soft materials, such as ceiling tile and woodwork, have been damaged by the incident, but Arrick-Kruger said it will take some time and professional observation to determine the structure’s soundness.

“Certainly the board decides whether or not to keep the building,” Arrick-Kruger said, adding that, to date, there is no diagnosis of structural deficiencies.

The county must first restore electricity and heat in the building (a job that was expected to be complete by the end of the day April 15) and then bring in a professional clean-up crew. Once the clean-up crew has eliminated the detritus, a contractor will be brought in to evaluate the building’s systems, including its structural integrity.

The insurance adjuster indicated that the county is looking at a $2.2 million allowance for replacement costs with a $2,500 deductible. Elimination of the building will bring in a $1.1 million allocation.

The county was in the middle of drafting a study on the building’s significance in hopes of earning state grant money to further research options for its future. In June 2013 consultant Robert Vogel told the board, “Every time we look at that building it looks better and better to us.”

The Victorian Gothic jail was built in 1875, and, contrary to urban legend, the old cell block does not  somehow hold the building together.

The board did not take any action on the matter and will wait for additional facts before making any decisions on the Historic Jail’s fate.