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The Architecture Around Us: Who cares about an old jail?

By KRISTIN HENDERSON
Special to the Tribune

Historic architecture does more than indicate time passed. Downtown Martinez’s identity springs from its buildings and the dialogue between them that creates a skyline like the scales of a George Gershwin tune.

Obliterate the Old Jail, and Contra Costa’s best governmental historic resource is rendered non-historic. The silver-columned Court House (now Finance Building) is not a stand alone historic building. The Old Jail and the Court House are the two buildings that comprise the National Register of Historic Places “Court House Block” at 625 Court Street (open this link for the nomination). You can get a hard copy from the Contra Costa Historical Society who was paid by the County to produce such a document.  You may read the nomination to find out more about the imported, artisan cut, rusticated granite blocks and the Neo-Greco design which established a formal and high quality authoritarian presence in the County in 1901.

The Court House Block is nominated as one unit because it is one unit. The Old Jail was first planned to be the fourth floor of the Court House and it was found the engineering did not work, so the Old Jail was built beside the Court House. The Court House is undergoing rehabilitation. There were 88 architectural diagrams produced for it. Happy to see the Court House’s character-defining features reconditioned.

The Old Jail and its Court House played a pivotal role in the political development of the County seat and the architectural development of Martinez. The Court House Block is the king pin of Martinez’s entire historic fabric. Without these two monumental buildings, the historic context of Court Street, Martinez, and the County Seat is lost. More of the Old Jail’s value may be found in the 80 something boxes of human interest material labeled “Sheriff Veale” at Contra Costa Historical Society.

That is the value of the Old Jail and that is why we care. The Court House Block with the Old Jail is a portrait of humanity’s progressing intellectual sophistication on a local level. Never mind what the Old Jail and Court House’s beauty and meaning does for the property values and views around it.

The newly organized Architectural Preservation Foundation of Contra Costa County has for now saved the Old Jail. The County has given this fledgling group but two years to find a way to put the Old Jail to good use. Please help them; please become a part of historic Martinez. They may be reached at: 929 Willow St., Martinez, CA 94553; (925) 352-3334; SaveTheCountyJail@gmail.com.

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