According to an expert on the preservation and re-use of older buildings, the Historic Houston County Jail building could have a promising future.

On June 4, Robert Vogel of Pathfinder CRM in Spring Grove gave county commissioners an update on some of the things he's found out so far.

Vogel began by reporting that his firm is still drawing up a preservation plan for the building. "The sole purpose of this plan is to organize what we know, what we don't know, and give a short list of what the preferred outcomes would be from a preservation standpoint," he said.

"Every time we look at that building, it looks better and better to us.

"There was an engineering study done for the county in 2005 that assessed the structure... but a couple of the basic assumptions (such as) that the cell block was built at a different time than the sheriff's residence, turns out to be not true at all.

"It's just as erroneous as the 'urban or rural legend' that the cells somehow hold the building together. That's another fallacy.

"The building had a very elegant tower on the top of it until 1979, which kind of came as a surprise to us. We found a set of plans from the 1970's remodel. We have a few more pieces to the puzzle, but there's a lot more questions than there are answers."

Vogel said that his company is also preparing to do a Historic Structures Report, which will include all of the technical information and recreate a set of plans for the building. That's because the originals from the 1875 building are long gone.

An additional report, called an Adaptive Re-use Study, would follow. The initial (preservation plan) report will be in the hands of commissioners by the end of the week, he added.

"Most of what is perceived to be problematic about the building from a technical perspective isn't."

Commissioners will need to decide how long they want to study the situation before deciding the "live or die" fate of the building, Vogel said.

He recommended 12 to 18 months, adding, "There's either going to be a re-use scenario that is technically feasible and economically sustainable or there isn't.

"Ordinarily, when a new jail is built, funds are set aside for demolition of the old one. You haven't done that."

Vogel said that he'd met with county officials on May 22, and the subject of the Historic Courthouse came up. That building is also on the National Register of Historic Places and has "some challenging architectural and engineering issues.

"We were asked to propose what we would do (to preserve the historic courthouse)."

A Preservation Master Plan would differ from the jail study in that the board already has determined to continue using the Historic Courthouse for county offices, Vogel said.

"What the county has learned is what every historic homeowner has also learned, that every time you have a roof contractor come look at your property, you need a new roof... that's natural. If you had a structural engineer come, they'd tell you that you need structural work done."

Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked if the roof on the old jail was still good, and Vogel said that it "works." But the Historic Courthouse roof has failed, he added.

"It would have been nice if they'd left the original (slate-based) roofs on. Those would have lasted for another several centuries.

"What you really need as historic site stewards is an objective appraisal of what your requirements are, and then you need to establish what your priorities are."

Vogel said the old jail building could be made ADA compliant. "We didn't see the big flaw that could stop the whole thing.

"The jail is even in better shape than we thought. It's surprising, actually. If we had done a re-use analysis before you built the new jail, I think we would have figured out some correctional use for the facility.

"Its major shortcoming is accessibility, but the solution to it isn't a $20-million solution, it's a $200,000 solution. The people who designed it were quite clever. It has plenty of room for 21st century systems. It's a nice building. You'd end up with 20 beds."

"Where were you five years ago?" Schuldt said.

Vogel called jails with residences attached "a uniquely Midwestern phenomenon." But the historic building still has plenty of cousins across the country, he noted, adding that most are now considered too small for their original purpose.

Vogel mentioned several that bear a striking resemblance to the building, including one in Texas and another in Illinois.

New roster hires for jail

Commissioners approved a request for Personnel Director Tess Kruger to advertise for additional "67-day roster" employees for the county jail, after she reported that the list of on-call employees at the facility has dwindled.

When asked how many persons the department would like to add to its call list, Kruger said, "about five if we could."

The board voted to authorize the installation of two outdoor mufflers for boilers located at the Justice Center for $2,700. Kruger reported that the installation was discussed by the project engineer and architect during the building process, but "it was determined at that time that it wasn't needed, and that it would be considered a change order."

"Subsequent to that time, the city engineer came and (inspected the installation) with a decibel reader and determined that it was within the legal limits of noise. I don't know if it is still within the legal limits, but I can say that it is a very obnoxious and enduring sound."

Other news from the board

The board decided by consensus to move forward with the annual county auction before the opening of the county fair. The tentative date is Wednesday, Aug. 14.