See inside a 105-year-old abandoned Alabama jail
Some say the old Bibb County Jail is haunted. Some say it’s an important piece of history.
The county says it could soon be demolished.
The 105-year-old former jail on the courthouse square in Centreville saw its last execution in 1949, its last inmate 15 years ago.
For about seven years, starting in 2007, the empty old jail sat in the hands of a group of citizens known as the Better Hometown Group. Last year, that group transferred the jail to a historic preservation group in Centreville, who then handed it over to the Bibb County Commission, who had originally sold it to the Better Hometown Group for a dollar.
Faced with the prospect of millions of dollars in renovation costs, the county commission has gotten bids to demolish the building in the hopes that an empty space will be easier to do something with.
“At the end of the day,” County Administrator Mark Tyner said, “that building served its purpose.”
The jail entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. According to its nomination form, the three-story jail was built around 1910. It’s made of brick in the Renaissance Revival style, and has a one-story porch with brick piers and thin columns.
It was added to the Register alongside 25 other structures in the Centreville Historic District, mostly bounded by the Bibb County Courthouse, which was built in 1902, and the court square. The area was nominated because it reflects “the character of a turn-of-the-century rural county seat,” according to the nomination form.
Its age and character make it a vital element of Centreville’s character, said Judy Herron, the secretary-treasurer of the Better Hometown Group. When her organization acquired the jail in 2007, they had plans to protect the building and find new uses for it, maybe as an event space.
“It needs work, don’t get me wrong,” Herron said. “Anything that gets neglected and the life is out of it, it goes downhill and it goes downhill fast.”
Since the Better Hometown Group took over, various groups including paranormal research groups have visited the jail. Vivian Abbott, with the Tuscaloosa County Paranormal Research Group, said the old jail’s history is of interest because of its gory history — inmates who were executed were hanged inside the jail itself until 1949. She said the county could possibly market the jail as a tourism destination similar to the face in the courthouse window in Carrollton.
“It’s a gory history,” Abbott said, “but it’s a lot of history.”
The jail’s distant past may be bloody, but its recent history is filled with politics. Herron said her group lost control of the jail through illegal means, that the group’s former president resigned last April, then presided over a meeting that July in which she oversaw the group’s dissolution. The group’s assets were given to a city historical association.
“She had no right to vote, she had no right to sign her name to anything, and they allowed it,” Herron said.
Herron and others, who felt the dissolution was illegal, got the organization reinstated at the end of September, she said. But they weren’t able to get the deed to the jail back. Herron said the group has been in talks with attorneys to see if any legal action can be taken, but it’ll all be moot if the jail is demolished first.
The city historic group deeded the jail back to the county, its original owner, and Tyner, the county administrator, said the commission wasn’t directly involved in taking it away from the Better Hometown Group.
Commissioners looked at what could be done with the jail, and saw what the cost of full renovation could amount to. Another historic building on that block was renovated at a cost of between $2 and 3 million, Tyner said, and it’s been vacant for several years.
“I don’t know what we’d do with it,” Tyner said. “There’s not any feasible reason to renovate it and put that amount of money into it.”
He said they decided to demolish it because restoring it would be prohibitively expensive, and an empty lot would be easier to market. It could also be used as parking.
“Parking has been discussed, but ultimately the commission will decide based on what’s best for constituents,” Tyner said.
The commission went with a bid from a firm out of Cottondale for just over $70,000, Tyner said. The only other bid they received was for $192,000, he said.
But the demolition isn’t a sure thing: Tyner said they’re waiting to see if any other options become available, such as possible buyers for the property.
“We’re not hell-bent on demolition,” he said.
Whether the building comes down or not, Herron isn’t done fighting. The group has started an online petition in order to try to save the building.
“As taxpayers, we need to make our voices be heard,” she said, “that we’re not going to stand for this to happen.”