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Montgomery County is launching an effort to repurpose the former jail in Norristown

Montgomery County has abandoned a controversial proposal to demolish the former jail it owns in Norristown and will instead seek redevelopment proposals for the long-vacant landmark and the 2.5 acres surrounding it.

The official pivot from demolition to saving the Airy Street building — an imposing Gothic presence on one of the county seat’s main streets since 1851 — follows a campaign to preserve the foundation.

The county had budgeted nearly $1 million to demolish the jail and had applied to the City of Norristown for a demolition permit, but announced on the eve of last Nov. 7’s election that it had asked the City Council to delay the action. The campaign gained further momentum following post-election leadership and membership changes on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

“We are submitting a formal letter to Norristown withdrawing our request for the demolition permit … (and) expect to deliver it sometime next week,” county spokesperson Megan Alt said Friday.

County Commission Chairman Jamila H. Winder, who spoke against preservation and in favor of demolition last year, said in a statement Thursday that she is “open” to the process.

“Ideally, we want to preserve the historic character of the Airy Street facade while using the rest of the site to create vibrancy and value in that part of downtown Norristown,” she said. “I’m as excited as anyone to see what (the site) looks like in the end.”

Winder’s predecessor as chairman, Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., opposed keeping the prison and characterized the site as a “monument to injustice” in a Sept. 3 Inquirer op-ed. His committee term expired at the end of 2023, and in February he was named chairman of SEPTA’s board.

A vendor hired by the Planning Commission will assess the condition of the structure and then a request for information will be issued to generate interest from potential developers, Scott France, executive director of the county’s Planning Commission, said Friday.

Redevelopment would likely focus on retaining the original facade and front and center sections, but could also include demolition of the deteriorating early 20th century extension to the rear of the property. Suggestions for reuse include provincial offices, a museum and a music venue.

In a statement, Commissioner Neil Makhija said: “The former prison… provides a crucial opportunity in our provincial capital… (and) we are actively soliciting views and contributions from community members, historic preservationists and site developers – people with the expertise I have done this before and can do it well.”

A ‘gentle high five’

The request for information “is a very important first step,” said Hanna Stark, director of policy and communications at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which also advocated for the prison’s preservation.

“Its reuse would contribute to a much more vibrant Norristown,” she said. “The importance of preserving it as a path to revitalization cannot be overstated.”

“I’m glad the community has taken action, and I think withdrawing the demolition permit application shows good faith on the part of the county,” said architect Douglas Seiler, who has been leading the effort to save the jail for more than to be given a new purpose for ten years.

“After the vote to revoke the demolition permit, some of us gave each other cautious high fives,” he said, adding: “What we are really fighting for now is for the site to become a destination that attracts people and becomes a magnet for the city center. companies.”

Said community activist and longtime Norristown resident Olivia Brady: “I am very pleased that the county has come to the realization that this building needs to be saved. To me, it would have been unconscionable to just tear it down, and I was afraid the county would flip the switch and call in the bulldozers.”

A complicated history

The prison was designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the architect of Philadelphia treasures such as the Academy of Music and the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. LeBrun also designed the original Montgomery County Courthouse, which is located nearby.

The Norristown Historical Architectural Review Board, an advisory board, opposed the demolition of the prison.

Chairman Bill Ward said LeBrun’s draft was intended to “intimidate” potential criminals, at a time when Irish and German Catholic immigrants were settling in the Philadelphia region in large numbers — and also being incarcerated in large numbers.

“I hope it will be put to some cultural use,” he said.

A 90-page research article on the prison’s history by Celeste Morello, a historian who grew up in Norristown, is referenced in the county planning commission’s presentation on the site’s redevelopment potential.

“I did a very comprehensive history of how the ‘castle-like’ design of the prison fit into Pennsylvania practice at the time,” she said. “The prisons were full of Irish men, who had been arrested on (false) charges – such as not having a job.”

A skeptic speaks

Thomas Lepera, chairman of the Norristown City Council, supported the proposed demolition. He also agreed with Lawrence’s contention that prison is a reminder of the history of over-incarceration and unequal justice.

“I believe the people who want to keep it have good intentions,” he said. “But as for the redevelopment, it’s been there since 1987 and in my memory no developer has seriously looked at it.

“The building is full of asbestos and lead paint,” says Lepera. “And in my opinion, the county has been tearing it down through neglect for years.”