The Norristown Project was founded in May of 2013 with the mission of improving the image of Norristown through volunteerism and community engagement activities. During the warmer months, the group organizes community cleanups in the town that include covering graffiti, park and neighborhood cleanups. Throughout the year, TNP will write regular blog posts to keep the community engaged on what is happening around town. The hope for the blog is to inspire creativity and connect the community virtually. The tagline is “Implementing Visions for a Better Community.” To date, TNP has cleaned over 50 blocks in Norristown and has hosted numerous volunteer events.
At the "Conversation With the Commissioners" event a while back, I was pleased to see all the questions about the future of the old Montgomery County Jailhouse (Norristown Jail in this blog). Discussions about the future of this jailhouse have been in the works for 27 years now. I read an article from 1987 that talked about the county's plan to prevent it from "sitting there for the rats." Unfortunately, that is what it's being used for today most likely. Today's blog looks at the history of the structure and ideas for creative uses for the building.
The Norristown Jail was built in 1851 as the county jail. It is also believed that the county prison before this one stood on the same location in the late 1700s, but no physical proof to back up that claim was found. The original design was built to hold approximately 180 prisoners. There became a need for a maximum security facility in the county which resulted in the one in Eagleville opening and this one closing.
The building remains unused on Airy Street today...but the structure is quickly becoming unusable. Roots from a tree are threatening the roof and the building has had no maintenance to prevent further damage since it has been closed. In the article linked above, there were talks to reuse the space as offices for county workers. Unfortunately at the time, the county did not need that much space, so the building went unused.
If the county would've known sooner, they would've had an easier time remodeling the old jail for office space instead of using Sacred Heart Hospital. That plan could still work since the population is expanding and the county is now expanding their business. Norristown is quickly becoming a "service" town. Meaning county offices, legal, non-profits, and more are making Norristown their home. This explains the spike in restaurants in town and not as many retail shops.
For those following TNP over the months, you know our desire to see a higher quality hotel in Norristown other than the one value chain on Main Street. With Norristown as the county seat and the courthouse across from the prison, a hotel would be beneficial to the county. Sometimes, the jury gets placed in hotels to avoid being persuaded by media and outsiders. I'm pretty sure the county doesn't send the jury to America's Best Value on Main Street. Most likely, they are staying in King of Prussia.
The second reason why bringing a hotel to that area would be great would be for our Arts Hill district. For argument's sake, let's say Norristown Jail has been converted to a hotel. Visitors who stay at this hotel have many nearby activities to keep them in Norristown. If you were staying there, you can easily walk down the street to catch a play or a show. The best part about it is that you won't have to look for parking! I guarantee if there was a hotel near our Arts Hill, EVERY show in those theaters would sell out each night, bringing in more revenue for those non-profits.
Nearby restaurants and coffee shops will also benefit by having a hotel in the area. People need to eat! Caffee Galileo is right there on Swede and Casa Bonita is a few blocks away on DeKalb. ALL within walking distance of the old jail. Do you see where I'm going with this?
At the Conversations with the Commissioners event, people also asked about the County's plan to increase pedestrian foot traffic. Let's say the hotel can accommodate 150 rooms, approximately 300 guests between the 90-95% occupancy rate. If half of them spent their free time walking around the neighborhood to businesses and to theaters, we would see the foot traffic we desire.
The Oxford Prison in the UK was converted to a hotel while keeping the original structure in place. Guests are able to appreciate the history of the structure while having 5-star accommodations. Norristown is a long ways away from having a 5 star hotel in our borders. However, this gives you an idea of what we can have if we start looking at creative uses for our abandoned buildings.
This is a picture of the Oxford Prison that was turned into a 5 star hotel in the UK. I mention this place because it is around the same age as the Norristown Prison.
Oh, did I mention their cool bar!?
So let's start the discussion of what we would like to see the Old Montco Prison used for. Maybe you have a personal dream of what you would like to see happen to the jail. Some other options for this building can be:
What would you like to see happen to the old jail on Airy Street? Add your positive comments below!
Shae Ashe is a 24-year-old student at Norfolk State University (VA) who was born and raised in Norristown, Pa. Having the privilege of living in Central Florida and the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, he was inspired to come back to his hometown and create ways to give back. He started the Norristown Project as a way to bring others together who share his vision of a better Norristown.