Donor saves 1890 jail at edge of Louisiana cemetery
By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
Jul. 29, 2017
A 127-year-old former jail at the edge of a Louisiana cemetery has been bought with an eye to restoring it for future generations.
The central Louisiana town of Colfax was created only 21 years before the jail was built in 1890. The building later was used for a library, an American Legion post, a barn for the sheriff's bull, and a health unit, said Trevor S. Fry, president of a Grant Parish preservation group.
"There are really not that many structures in Grant Parish that date from the 19th century," so the donation by preservationist and engineer Robert Wolfe and his wife, Mimi, is significant, Fry, an attorney and founder of the nonprofit Grant Preservation Board of Louisiana, said in a phone interview.
Wolfe said, "Don't ask me why I've got a hook in me for old things. But some kind of way, they kind of reach out and talk to me a little bit."
The parish was still young when the 20th century began.
The state's Reconstruction government carved Grant Parish out of Winn and Rapides parishes in 1869, naming the parish after President Ulysses S. Grant and the parish seat after Vice President Schuyler Colfax.
In September 1890, the town paid $2,975 for a new jail. It was to be "24 x 38 feet, (7.3 by 11.6 meters) with three rooms below and one above, and the walls are to be thirteen inches thick," according to an 1890 volume titled "Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northwest Louisiana."
The price is the equivalent of nearly $81,000 today, according to a calculation provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
More recently, Fry said, the town decided the jail may be a liability.
"They were concerned about kids getting into the second floor," he said. So the decision was made to demolish the structure.
An online petition asking the mayor and aldermen to keep the building was more than 50 shy of its 200-signature goal and an online fundraiser had garnered two-thirds of its $3,000 goal when Robert and Mimi Wolfe paid $3,001 for the jail on July 21 and gave it to Grant Preservation.
Wolfe lives and runs a consulting firm in Opelousas but is also the Grant Parish engineer and often visits Colfax on weekends. He had bought three turn-of-the-century buildings in Colfax — a bank built in 1901 and a drug store and a hotel built in 1902 — for restoration. One, the LaSalle Hotel, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fry said the preservation board asked Wolfe to buy and donate the jail.
A commercial appraiser set the value at $2,500 to $3,000, Wolfe said, and the town asked for a dollar more than the appraised value.
"I think they had the right to sell it at two-thirds, but $500 swing plus a dollar wasn't worth getting into a controversy," he said.
Fry said the next steps include seeing whether the building can be added to the National Register of Historic Places and "sealing up" the building with good doors and windows.
Wolfe said that might cost about $10,000. Full restoration would require adding plumbing, electricity, air conditioning and probably a new roof, he said.
"I would say $100,000 could probably get it in good shape," he said.
On the internet:
Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northwest Louisiana