Leavenworth Debates 1930s Jail, High School

Posted on: February 5th, 2008 by Margaret Foster

Leavenworth County JailLeavenworth, Kan., is perhaps best known for its penitentiary, but it's also the state's oldest town, founded in 1854. This month, locals are trying to save two of Leavenworth's buildings: a former high school and a jail.

Yesterday the city's preservation commission conducted a tour of the 1933 school and 1939 jail, closed eight years ago.

"This is the time to get the discussion going," says Sally Hatcher, chairman of the commission. "I realize that it's the responsibility of the owner of the building to justify demolition, but you need to help them see the light."

A local Methodist church, which owns the former high school, voted earlier this month to recommend demolition to its board of trustees. Leavenworth county owns the jail, a PWA project, and decided in May to pursue demolition.

Hatcher says both buildings could be reused: The high school as an addition to a nearby arts center and the jail as courtrooms. Since both buildings are eligible for the National Register, they are eligible for state historic tax credits.

According to state law, because the jail is located within 500 feet of a National Register-listed structure, the city's preservation commission has the authority to turn down the county's demolition request. However, the county can appeal that decision to the city commission. Nothing stands in the church's way if its board decides to raze the old high school.

The county says it would cost $780,000 to renovate the jail, according to a May report by Topeka-based Treanor Architects. That pricetag is too high for county commissioners, who want to use the building for storage.

Designed by M.K. Feth, the Leavenworth County Jail was a Public Works Administration (PWA) project. At its 1939 dedication, a PWA representative said, "The purposes, the aims, the very spirit of PWA are embodied in this structure."

The jail's simplicity may be its worst enemy. "Most people say that jail is just a plain building, and that's true. I say this isn't a beauty contest; this is about dollars and 'sense,'" Hatcher says.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Preservation Magazine