Editorial: Hideous-looking jail detracts from otherwise spectacular Courthouse Square

Photo by Tom Rivers: The Orleans County Jail sits at the corner of Platt Street and East Park Street in the historic Courthouse Square of Albion.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 February 2023 at 3:58 pm

Flowers, murals would help soften blighting effect from jail

ALBION – What were they thinking? In 1970 the leaders of the county government put up perhaps the most unsightly building in these parts, and they put it in the heart of the Courthouse Square – some of our best real estate.

The Orleans County Jail, a  concrete monstrosity, sits on the Square with the County Courthouse, the Clerks’ Building, seven churches, the U.S. Post Office, the former Swan Library and other impressive sites. The Courthouse Square with its 34 buildings is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Courthouse Square represents the best of the community’s creativity, wealth and ambition in the 1850s to early 1900s. We were a community daring to dream big back then. For example, the Presbyterian Church, with a steeple reaching 175 feet high, is the tallest building in the county. It was built in 1874.

This photo from a drone was taken in February 2017 by Elliott Neidert. It shows some of the Courthouse Square, including the county jail in the lower left.

But, about 100 years later, the county leaders put a giant turd among our best buildings. No effort was made to fit in with the other neighboring structures. We didn’t need an opulent jail. But the county couldn’t have missed the mark more with this building. They put a blight on the landscape with a building that resembles a big boring box.

The Courthouse Square is an amazing achievement by the residents in the 19th Century. Buildings constructed with flourishes – columns, arches, even a dome. There are 43 Tiffany stained-glass windows at one church and a large rose window at another facing Main Street. The folks back then didn’t do the cheapest thing or most cost-effective possible. And they didn’t build with a “sameness” that is so typical in small towns and suburbs today.

Photo from Orleans County Department of History: The previous county jail was built in 1903 out of Medina Sandstone and was demolished for a new jail in 1970.

The jail was done in an architectural style dismissively called “brutalism” by former County Historian Bill Lattin.

In retrospect, the county leaders would have better served the community by keeping the jail built in 1903 from Medina Sandstone. It could have been repurposed as an administrative office for the Sheriff’s Department, or other county offices. The new ugly jail could have been built elsewhere in Albion – away from the masses.

Yes, it is terrible. But what can we do to make it better, to give something back to the Courthouse Square, to not be such a scourge?

I would suggest at the minimum some landscaping with flowers, bushes, shrubs or small trees on front side of the building facing Platt Street, especially on the north half closer to State Street. The other half of the building closer to Park Street has a few small trees, but that side could use an uplift as well. I would mobilize the master gardeners and have them work some of their magic.

I’m a big fan of public art and I think murals would make a dramatic difference on this building. There are long walls of concrete on the first floor of the building. Two long murals on each side would make the site far less depressing and soul-crushing. Or it might be better to have four or five smaller murals rather than two long ones.

Photo by Tom Rivers: These fruit trees are in blossom in the spring of 2018 at Watt Farms in Albion. A mural of an orchard in bloom would enliven the exterior of the county jail.

There could be an Erie Canal theme on the one side. I would suggest a tugboat with a lift bridge in the background. The other long mural could be an agricultural scene. You can’t go wrong showing fruit trees in blossom. The murals would highlight part of the Albion landscape.

The county should seek proposals from the artist community. They may have better ideas on how to make the building better blend in with a historic district and not stick out like such a sore thumb.

The county will officially be 200 years old in 2025. These murals could be part of a bicentennial celebration.

The residents from more than a century ago embraced creativity and wanted the buildings to inspire the community. It’s not too late for the jail to give off some positivity.