Above: The property at 110 King Street includes the jail keeper’s house in front and the actual jail behind.
The East Greenwich Historical Preservation Society (EGHPS) has found a private buyer for the old county jailhouse at 110 King Street that’s served as its headquarters since 1976. Town officials said they were surprised by the announcement; they had been planning a technical inspection so the town could make its own offer for the jail.
The EGHPS declined to name the buyer, since the sale is still pending and will close sometime in May. The EGHPS membership decided to put the building up for sale in January. It was not publicly listed; a 2021 land assessment estimated that the plot has a value of a little over $600,000.
“We’re excited about this – to move forward and spend our energy on public history in East Greenwich,” said EGHPS vice president Jennifer Suellentrop about the sale. Proceeds from the sale will also fund the jail’s conservation easement, which will be enforced by the nonprofit PreserveRI. Suellentrop described the society’s plans for walking tours and informational signs around town to make EG history more visible. The society has not yet settled on where their new in-town headquarters will be, but the decision to sell the building was spurred by the inaccessibility of the old jail, which has no elevator and lacks parking, and its ongoing upkeep costs.
In contrast, the Town Council responded with surprise and disappointment when they discussed the news at their March 22 meeting. The council believed the pending sale cut off an ongoing discussion about the possible public use of the building. When buildings are sold to private owners, “you lose the ability to show the history of East Greenwich,” Councilor Renu Englehart said later. Councilor Mike Zarrella was also concerned that a new buyer might pursue “demolition by neglect” for the newer sections of the jail.
The EGHPS had contacted the council in February 2020 to discuss ending its stewardship of the building. With the onset of the pandemic, however, nothing happened for many months. Meanwhile, the society’s tenants on the lower floor of the jail left with several months of rent unpaid by the time town staff met with the members of the society in person last October. Town Manager Andy Nota said that after everyone toured the jail, the society announced it wanted to sell the building. He said he felt like their roles had been reversed in that meeting – a town official explaining the need to keep historic buildings for public use to a historic preservation society.
Afterward, a Town Council subcommittee was established to investigate whether the town could buy 110 King Street. Nota said he had hoped to “forge a partnership” where the town would buy the jail, use it for public services like a youth center, and still provide meeting space for the EGHPS. Englehart thought the police department could use the jail to have a “satellite” presence near the busy waterfront in the summer. Both were in agreement that, to them, the sale of the building seemed like a contradiction of the society’s mission.
To the EGHPS, however, this sale will save the building. As Suellentrop explained, the society could not dedicate all its energies to maintaining a single building anymore. After the town put the building out of use as a youth center, it was slated for demolition until the town sold it to the society for $1 in 1976. Since then, they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the building’s upkeep. Now, Suellentrop said, the PreserveRI conservation easement will protect the historical elements of the building, on top of local historic district protections, and EGHPS can turn to providing the public education it sees as its core purpose.
To enforce the easement, PreserveRI will conduct annual inspections of the building and will have the right to sue any owner if they alter the facade or don’t maintain it properly. A conservation easement is a legal right tied to a property – every owner of the plot, in perpetuity, will have to follow its conditions. Speaking in January, PreserveRI’s Valerie Talmage said, “You get the guarantee of preservation plus the owner who has the incentive to keep the building in good condition.” PreserveRI has worked with nonprofits and towns across the state to set easements for buildings like the old library in Wickford and the Valentine Whitman Home in Lincoln.
In the historic preservation community, the priority is finding the right “adaptive reuse” for old buildings – uses that give them meaning now, while saving their most important historic features. Talmage said the reuse of jails is rare, and that the ownership of historic buildings by low-budget nonprofits is becoming less tenable as they face expensive, long-term maintenance. “Organizations that face the reality of the finances and think of the future are to be congratulated,” Talmage added.
The easement, however, only protects the exterior of the wooden jail keeper’s house – the more prominent structure. It will not protect the c. 1880 brick addition or the interiors. After consulting an architect, a preservation expert, and PreserveRI, the EGHPS decided that the inside had been too altered or was in bad enough repair that it was no longer significantly “original or unique.” Council member Englehart disagreed, saying that the inside of the jail, with its old stone cells and history of public use, is part of EG’s character.
The sale is pending, but this is only the beginning for the old jail. Because the building lacks parking, is located in a flood zone, and is zoned as “commercial highway,” any new owner will likely need to ask town boards to change or adapt its approved use. And there hasn’t been much discussion about how East Greenwich residents would see the change. “I and the council and the community appreciate the work of their society, their stewardship of the building, and their attempts to save it,” Nota said.
He added, “I would love to know what the community thinks.”