Monday, May 7, 2012

An Afternoon in Jail


In autumn of 2009, I attended a Halloween event at the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre.  Although I fancy myself a genealogist and an amateur historian, it was the spooky legends surrounding Brentsville's 19th century jail that lured me out on that chilly October night. 

The seminar was my second visit to Brentsville but my first opportunity to tour the interior of the jail.  Because the building was considered unsound, it had been closed to the general public while waiting for the revenue to begin its transformation.  All of the proceeds from the seminar were donated to help fund a project to stabilize the structure and eventually restore it back to its heyday. 

Although built as a jail to serve the Prince William County seat, the building has undergone several reincarnations – as a boarding house for female school students, as a private residence, and as an office building for the county Park Authority.  By 2009, each had left its mark on the structure in a collage of styles visible in the differing types of wall paper, the paint peeling from the walls, widened interior doorways, and windows cut into the brick walls.  It took quite a bit of imagination to envision any of the rooms as jail cells meant to incarcerate prisoners.

Flash forward to April 2012.  At long last, thanks to fundraising, grants, and donations, work has finally begun on the Brentsville Jail.  When the Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation offered a seminar on historic preservation and a "hard hat tour" of the restabilization project, I jumped at the chance to see what was going on.

What a difference three years has made!  As our tour group approached the jail, led by Dr. Robert Krause, the County Preservationist, and Mike Riley, the Brentsville Site Manager, I could already see changes in the exterior of the building.  A chain link fence now surrounds the site and there are clear signs of work in progress.  Most of the white boards that had covered the windows have been removed, once more offering the building a clear view of Bristow Road and the Courthouse itself.  Behind the jail the evidence is much more obvious, in the form of tools and piles of brick and other construction materials. 

As we prepared to go inside, Dr. Krause theorized that there may once have been a kitchen behind the building.  The work on the jail could be an excellent opportunity to conduct an archeological dig in search of it.  Whether there is any real intent to do so was left somewhat unclear. 

Hard hats were handed out and we entered the building through the back door – which, we were told, probably didn't exist when the building was first built.  The Brentsville Jail housed both minimum security prisoners, like the town drunk, to much more dangerous felons, like murderers awaiting their date with the hangman.  Dr. Krause said that he doubted there was more than one door into the original building.  More than one entrance to the jail would have offered additional opportunities for escape; therefore, it was likely that the jailor, visitors, and the prisoners themselves entered and exited through the door facing the main road. 

Standing inside the hallway, just inside the back door, we were shown evidence of what was once a stairway leading to the second floor.  The original stairs, now completely gone except for a few markings and shadows on the wall, had been replaced with the more modern, present-day stairway on the opposite wall. 

Walking toward the front of the building, we entered the room to our right.  It had no intersecting wall, so that we were able to see the length of the building and two additional doors leading out.  The plaster on the walls had been removed, exposing the brick underneath and the wooden beams above.  In the center of the room, a large section of the concrete floor had been removed to reveal the flooring and earthen foundation beneath.  This pit was deep enough that, when one of the visitors stood on the edge to look down, they lost their hard hat which fell to the bottom with a splash.  It wasn't ground water, as we supposed, but residue from the wet saw needed to cut through the thick concrete.  Dr. Krause explained that there was speculation as to whether the building had a cellar, but cutting through the flooring in this room and the rooms across the hall led to the conclusion that there was never a cellar or any other chamber beneath the building.

An examination of this room reminded me of how much change and remodeling the building had endured in its lifetime.  Looking down to where the wall met the floor (and another cut in the concrete), it was possible to get a sense of where the jail's original wooden flooring might have been.  At least one (if not both) of the doorways in the outer wall were not original and the windows had clearly been widened, possibly more than once.  In fact, we were told that most of the windows may not have existed at all when the jail was first built.  Horizontal pieces of wood lodged within the brickwork beside the window frames gave a sense of how small the original windows may have been.  It amazes me that many of these additions were made without any consideration for load-bearing walls, further undermining the structural integrity of the building.  (Yikes!)

Dividing the room was an archway built of thick wooden beams which is now further supported by metal support poles.  Looking up over the cross beam, the brick was a crumbling, sagging patchwork that spoke of an attempt to support the weight of the floor above!  The wood used to create this brace showed cuts and indentations that implied that they had been removed from another part of the building – very possibly one of the higher security jail cells -- to serve this new purpose.  In fact, throughout our tour we saw evidence of wood that had been removed/replaced/rearranged to serve certain remodeling/structural needs.  For instance, above a second floor door frame can be seen sections of wood with neat holes cut into them that may once held hardware, such as a lock or a doorknob.

Walking into the cell across the hall on the first floor, we found another large chunk of cement flooring missing and similar signs of window additions and widening.  Unlike the previous room, the wall to the inner corridor was not made of brick but heavy, 8 inch thick beams of white oak.  This was one of the jail cells intended for high security prisoners.  The entire interior of the cell would have been lined with these beams and covered with further wooden paneling.  There would have been only one window – a much smaller affair than the two that now exist – and a heavy wooden door with a slot through which to pass food.  In order to escape, a prisoner would have had to find a way to cut/tunnel through the wooden paneling, the underlying thick oak beams, and the exterior brickwork reinforced with more wooden beams.  (As a side note, this particular cell is somewhat notorious.  In 1872, James F. Clark, a Commonwealth attorney, was incarcerated there after being charged with "abducting and carrying away Miss Fannie Fewell."  Ms. Fewell's brother, Lucien "Rhoda" Fewell, entered the jail -- the jailor having stepped away and conveniently leaving the door open -- and shot Clark while in his cell, mortally wounding him.  Fewell was later charged with the murder but acquitted.)

In the cell's current state, it wouldn't take much to escape its confines.  The wood paneling is long gone and so, too, are most of the beams.  The few that remained are shadows of their former selves – what little there is of them.  The termite damage is extensive and devastating, leaving jagged holes large enough to see through.  The bottom on several has been eaten away, leaving them literally hanging from the upper crossbeam and offering no support to the structure whatsoever.  Each beam bears a square of paper with a number and a letter written in chalk.  Dr. Krause explained that everything was being documented by an artist -- placement and shape of the boards, especially cuttings and holes to indicate where hardware may have been – in order to aid in a more accurate restoration.  The letters indicated what would happen to the original board itself.  S = Save (for future examination but not necessarily for future use in the building) or D = Dumpster (i.e., it could not be saved and would have to be thrown out).

Equally disturbing was the condition of the brickwork.  More than missing mortar and gaps between the masonry, many of the bricks are crumbling into dust.  Thermal imaging conducted on the building just a few weeks ago showed gaps within the walls where the bricks had virtually disintegrated.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor, we walked somewhat gingerly into the rooms in spite of assurances that the flooring was sound enough to support us.  Again, we found that the plaster had been removed to expose the bones of the building.  The ceiling had also been removed, giving us a view up into the eaves and the framework that held the metal roof in place.  A barred window at the rear of the building shows evidence of one prisoner's attempt to escape by setting fire to it.  The wood on the window is charred and the ceiling beams show signs of smoke damage.  This sort of escape attempt was not unusual in the 19th century.  In the Brentsville Jail, at least one prisoner is rumored to have succeeded.  The attempt probably destroyed the building's roof in the process. 

I came away from my visit to the jail with a better understanding of the building's condition (and amazement that it has stood for so long) as well as an appreciation for the monumental task that lies ahead to restore this historic treasure.  Brickwork throughout the building will need to be replaced and repointed (i.e., new mortar placed to correct defective mortar joints in the masonry).  Dr. Krause indicated that the masonry work is their first priority.  Meanwhile, they intend to save as much of the remaining wood as possible but most likely the majority of it will have to be replaced -- preferably with white oak cut and cured and then hand hewn to approximate the originals.  With that in mind, Brentsville has set up a working saw mill on site and is in the process of building a barn-like structure behind the parking lot where the new wood will need to cure (i.e., left to dry to ensure that dimensional changes through shrinkage are confined to the drying process).  It could take up to two years before the wood will be ready for use. 

When will the jail be fully restored and open to the public?  Our guides confessed that it is too early to say.  There are still too many factors that may help or hinder the work that needs to be done.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how things progress and am looking forward to the day when the Brentsville Jail opens once more for "business."

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