San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 21st, 2009
Old jail an ‘architectural gem’

GUEST COMMENTARY by JIM CULLEN

One of Hays County’s most historic architectural gems from the 19th Century is the “old” Hays County Jail, shrouded for years behind thickening vegetation on Fredericksburg Street in San Marcos, not far from the courthouse square.

The historic site, listed in the National Register of Histroric Places since 1983, was vacated by the county in 1937 and eventually sold to San Marcos contractor Oscar Payne, who utilized it for many years for storage and as part of his construction yard. Payne’s heirs sold the property to Preservation Associates in the 1990s, the necessary seed money for the purchase coming from a local foundation.

Various plans for the building, if and when restored, have been offered and pursued for years, including the Junior League of San Marcos once envisioning a enlarged thrift store and the Combined Law Enforcement Assoctaion of Texas (CLEAT) offering support for a law enforcement museum at the site. Then Southwest Texas State University Professor Jim Kimmel from the university’s Department of Geography crafted a plan in 2000 that would have given direction to that effort.

Current discussions look to elements of Kimmel’s plan, as well as the extended possibility of an eventual master plan for the entire Dunbar Historic District, to include The Calaboose Museum, Eddie Durham Park, and other resources in the immediate area.

Over recent years, caretaking by Preservation Associates took the form of stabilization and assessment. Structural engineers were called in to address the stability of the building (a corner had sunk into the ground) and to prepare it for “a basic mothballing of the building” that bought it time. Ownership has recently passed back to Hays County.

According to the narrative in its National Register dosumentation, Hays County Commissioners met on Valentine’s Day, 1884, to sign a contract for the construction of the new jail on the same lot as one built in 1873. Edward Northcraft and B.F. Donalson were given until August 12 to complete their task, an unimaginable schedule in today’s world, for which $11,500 was allocated. Specifications called for the jail to be constructed of the best stone, brick, and lumber.

The urgency with which county fathers addressed the jail situation was pushed along by a local newspaper editor’s critically-worded article. He offered testimony in the form of an artcle by a Kyle man who described “19 men confined in the 10 by 12 foot cell (in the jail then being utilized). Commissioners were apparently also influenced by reports of an attempted escape and the suicide of an Alabama lawyer who was a prisoner there.

The building served its intended function for almost a half century before being replaced by the county’s next jail.

The old Hays County Jail documented its most dramatic point in history when, on April 9, 1915, the only “official” hanging in Hays County was held in the jail yard there.

The condemned man, Benjamin Guerrero, is reported to have puffed on a cigar at the end of his life and offered only the cryptic comment, “Fine show, no?” to the crowd gathered to witness his execution.

The Hays County relic is described architecturally as “typifying late 19th-Century jail construction in the Italianate style. It is a two-story limestone block structure with a simple brick dentiled cornice on the cell section.” Hoped for restoration plans go to the structure itself, as well as its adaptive re-use.

JIM CULLEN, a San Marcos resident, is a longtime member of the Hays County Historical Commission.

PHOTO: Built in 1884 in the Italianate style, the two-story old Hays County jail in San Marcos is seen here in an undated photo.

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2 thoughts on “Old jail an ‘architectural gem’

  1. Actually the old jail was passed down to my mother, Dottie Sims after my grandfather passed away in 1972. It was also known for “housing” two of the famous Newton gang. Two of the brothers came back in the latter 70’s and went back down to re-visit the jail where they had spent some time and we got to walk through with them and hear their stories. One of the brothers held my great-grandmother at gun point during a robbery of the bank, she was a night switchboard operator when the phone company was housed on San Antonio street. The jail served as a Haunted House in the 80’s and was a film set in the latter mid 70’s for the movie “Leadbelly” a biopic based on the life of blues musician, Huddie Ledbetter, directed by famous photographer, Gordon Parks (lovely man by the way). So you see there is a lot more history to that old jail that should be told and preserved. It would also make an incredible artist studio on the upper floors, the lighting is beautiful, such a waste not to be using it in some capacity. By the way, my grandmother, was a child when Benjamin Guerrero was hung. She and her friends climbed the fence to watch the hanging, when he dropped through the floor she said they all were shocked and fell off the fence and had nightmares for months. She always said she never got over it, it made a huge impact on her. When I was a child I made lots of mud pies upstairs and the stairs lead my friends and I into other worlds. It’s a great place with a lot of history. It needs to house something fabulous!

  2. Thank you very much for adding to the written history of the old jail. We were wondering the other day, what was Benjamin Guerrero convicted of?

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