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PAXTON — A year and a half after being named one of Illinois’ 10 most endangered historic places, the 141-year-old former jail and sheriff’s residence on the courthouse square in Paxton appears doomed again for demolition.
The Ford County Board made plans last week to move forward with tearing down the historic complex this spring, unless a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Paxton’s past will commit in upcoming weeks to restoring it and using it for an acceptable purpose.
The 1871 Italianate-style brick sheriff’s residence and the stone jail attached to it had been targeted for demolition two years ago, prompting the Chicago-based nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois to name the complex in April 2011 to its annual list of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.
But until last Wednesday’s meeting of the county board’s overview committee, the board never again discussed or made plans to follow through with the demolition of the long-vacant structure.
With 11 of 12 board members present, the board agreed last week to offer the Paxton Foundation a chance to save the building first. The board said it would invite the foundation’s members to attend the next county board meeting on Jan. 14 to discuss options for the building’s use.
Paxton Foundation President Royce Baier said Friday that the foundation board would be meeting prior to the county board meeting to determine the amount of interest in pursuing such a project.
Baier said the foundation is certainly interested in seeing the structure saved.
“It’s one of those things that is not replaceable. It’s one of the last remaining sheriff’s residences and stone jails in the state of Illinois,” Baier said. “It would be a horrible loss to the county and the community. Those are one-of-a-kind things that once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
Baier said the foundation has already discussed, “at great length,” possible uses for the building, after learning the county was considering demolition in late 2010.
“It’s been the general consensus of the group that we would be, of course, very interested in saving it and participating (in a project) in some way,” Baier said, “but we’ve never actually taken a vote or made any arrangements to jump on the project.
“So that’s why we need to have another meeting and see how serious the group is.”
Baier said he thinks the sheriff’s residence and jail could be used as a museum and/or office space for the foundation. The idea of setting up a bed-and-breakfast in the jail portion of the complex — similarly to what was done with an old jail in Rockville, Ind. — has also been considered.
Baier said the necessary renovation of the complex would “certainly involve a lot of fundraising,” but he said he would expect the foundation to be able to do a lot of the exterior work needed using its own labor and funds on hand.
“The exterior of that building is in miraculous condition,” Baier noted, “especially with the new roof (the county installed a few years ago). We would just need to stabilize the brick work and paint trim — and even masonry-wise it virtually needs nothing as far as masonry repairs — so we could probably swing that initially to finally get it looking like something again.”
As for the interior renovations, Baier said, the work would be much more expansive, and expensive.
“It would probably take several years to renovate the interior,” Baier said.
The building has remained empty and unused since 1993 — the last year the facility was in operation. At the time, it had been Illinois’ oldest-operating jail. The building was replaced by a new jail that was built north of the complex.
County board members stressed that they do not want to tear down the building, given its historical significance. But they also noted that the county has no use of its own for the aging structure, and they are not willing to spend any more of taxpayers’ money to preserve it.
Meanwhile, there remains a need to create space for a proposed new Ford County dispatch facility. The board discussed the possibility of putting the proposed dispatch facility where the old jail currently stands.
Sheriff Mark Doran confirmed that he has had initial discussions with board members about the possibility of erecting a larger facility on the courthouse square, which would allow the relocation of Ford County’s dispatchers from within the current jail. The proposed building also could be used as a maintenance/vehicle garage, Doran said.
The move would be beneficial, Doran said, because it would allow the county to hire dispatchers without needing to have them cross-trained as correctional officers.
“As it is right now, you have jail and dispatch (in the same facility), and it’s hard to find people who are good at both,” Doran said.
Doran said he has no opinion on whether the old jail should be torn down.
“I am in favor of whatever the board decides,” Doran said.
During the Jan. 14 county board meeting, the board plans to give the Paxton Foundation an “ultimatum” to make a decision by a certain date whether to pursue a project involving the old jail. If no “viable use” can be found by the February meeting, the board plans to seek bids at that time for the demolition of the complex. Demolition would likely then occur in March.
Local historic preservationists Susan Satterlee and Rosemary Kaye, who have urged the county to save the building and helped get it on the endangered places list in 2011, could not be reached for comment by press time.
Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, said last year that the building has an old design that “really compliments the courthouse” next to it. He said it would be a shame for it to be torn down and replaced by a new structure.
“It looks like something that belongs there,” Peters noted, “and I think anything new would look out of place.”