Historic jail and sheriff’s home to be sold to Delaware County Historical Society

DELAWARE — Two years ago, the Delaware County Commissioners rejected an opportunity to sell the historic county-owned jail and former sheriff’s home that sits atop a hill beside the historic courthouse just north of Downtown.

Entrance to Historic Jail - Delaware County Historical Society
Delaware County juvenile court Judge David Hejmanowski points out some murals in the historic jail that were painted by prisoners in the 1980s. The Delaware County Historical Society plans to purchase the jail and former sheriff’s home in Delaware for $350,000. [Maddie Schroeder/For The Dispatch]

The $156,000 offer from local attorney Michael T. Cox — for a 143-year-old building valued at $1.5 million for tax purposes — wasn’t the only problem. It was one of only two bids, and the other was for $10,000.

At the time, Commissioner Gary Merrell said “We just want to make sure we get this right.”

The county now believes that it’s got the right offer: $350,000 for the Italianate-style building at 20 West Central Avenue from the Delaware County Historical Society. Officials there say they are excited to take ownership, once legal details are ironed out.

Historic Jail to be soldl - Delaware County Historical Society
The historic jail in Delaware, an Italianate-style building at 20 West Central Ave., is currently home to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and a law library. [Maddie Schroeder/For The Dispatch]

Without the financial help of a private benefactor, though, the deal wouldn’t have been possible, said Donna Meyer, executive director of the historical society.

Roger J. Koch, a long-time preservationist and society board member from Delaware, told Meyer that the building was too good to pass up and that he was willing to help by loaning the money. (He had hoped that his aid could be anonymous, but his name appears on legal documents.)

“He told us ‘I’ve got this money, and I’m not doing anything with it,’ ” Meyer said.

Koch, 76, a retired architect, created a limited liability corporation (LLC) to purchase the building from the county’s land bank, a separate legal entity from the county, but on whose board Merrell and Commissioner Jeff Benton sit. The historical society will, in turn, re-pay the LLC, interest-free on the five-year debt.

Old Jail Cell Block - Delaware County Historical Society
Several jail cells are seen on the first floor of the historic jail in Delaware that dates back more than 100 years. [Maddie Schroeder/For The Dispatch]

“I’m doing it out of altruism, and I tend to shy away from publicity,” said Koch, explaining his reason for wanting privacy. “I am not rich. And this is a major sacrifice. This is a loan. I am getting paid back.”

The commissioners still have to approve the transaction to ensure that it is in compliance with the commissioners’ agreement with the land bank. 

The building’s wrought-iron gate, ornate brickwork, tall vertical windows and soaring tower are among the historic features. Inside, cellblock walls are scrawled with 1980s references: ZZ Top, AC/DC and messages of hope: “The Lord is the Way.”

Prisoners were last housed here in 1988, before the opening of the current jail about two miles northeast of Downtown Delaware.

The building currently houses the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and a law library. The society plans to relocate its offices here from its current Stratford Road site, lease out other office space, and provide “fun, interactive, educational, evolutionary, and novel entertainment,” according to a business plan submitted to the county. That means school trips, Halloween events and lots of public tours.

Old Jail Cell Interior - Delaware County Historical Society
The historic jail in Delaware will be purchased by the Delaware County Historical Society. [Maddie Schroeder/For The Dispatch]

“I just love this — the number of possibilities that there are,” said David Hejmanowski, the society board president and a juvenile court judge.

Koch said the 8,500 square-foot building is known as the old jail, even though most of the structure was the personal residence for the sheriff.

 “It was built during the heyday of Delaware’s post-Civil War growth,” Koch said. “The governor (Rutherford B. Hayes), who became president, felt strongly that jails should be humanely run and the best way to do that was to have the sheriff and his family live in the facility.” The sheriff’s wife typically prepared meals for inmates, he said.

The building’s position atop the hill was intentional as “visual connectivity to the citizens,” said Koch. It also signaled that the sheriff was the second most important figure in county government behind commissioners.

The commissioners have recently spent about $10 million to remodel the adjacent courthouse, which now houses their offices and other government offices.

Cox, the attorney whose bids were rejected twice, said he hopes the society can maintain the property. He had pledged to spend up to $40,000 annually for restoration and upgrades.

“We were willing to make a commitment. We had the revenue to support it. We knew what we were getting into,” he said.

Don Rankey, county treasurer, also thought that Cox’s proposal was a good one. But he’s convinced that preservationists will do the same.

After reviewing the historical society’s financial books, Rankey said, “I feel very comfortable that they are going to be able to maintain this. In my mind, this is the best of all worlds.”

Jail Cell Message - Delaware County Historical Society
A message written by a prisoner is seen outside of a jail cell at the historic jail in Delaware. It operated until 1988. [Maddie Schroeder/For The Dispatch]