CATSKILL — After years of debate, the former Greene County Jail is in its final hours.
Built in 1908, the county jail and sheriff’s office on Bridge Street in Catskill are listed on state and national historic registries.
The jail was closed in April 2018, following a report by Kaaterskill Associates stating parts of the building were structurally compromised.
Over its century-long history, the jail held many prisoners, but none more famous — or notorious — than gangster John T. Diamond, known as “Legs” for his skill as a dancer.
Diamond, one of the biggest whiskey and beer bootleggers in the Northeast during Prohibition, was known for his merciless tactics. He is thought to have killed more than 25 people.
Diamond was also a local hero, called a “Champion Against the Drys,” for his defiance of Prohibition.
In 1931, throngs of people lined Main Street to see Diamond, still recovering from gunshot wounds, delivered to the jail to serve time for murder.
The Greene County Jail was named to the state Commission of Correction’s 2018 Worst Offenders report, second to Rikers Island, for its improper policies and procedures. The annual report lists the most problematic local and state correctional facilities.
Demolition of the facility is bittersweet, Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said.
“It’s bitter for some, it’s sweet for others,” he said. “When we did the cost comparison to rehab the building, it was $3 million more than to demo and do a rebuild. So dollar-and-centswise, this was by far the more fiscally responsible plan to take. But there’s a lot of history there and we’re making room now to move forward.”
Meg Nowack, of Historic Catskill, said the demolition is a loss for the community.
“I feel as if it was a really integral part of the grouping that sits on the corner — the courthouse, the jail, the sheriff’s office, the library and the banks were all built in the early 1900s,” she said. “It formed this great grouping that’s really important for the historic district and now this large section is going to be gone and replaced by this parking lot. That’s nothing Catskill can benefit from.”
The property is being eyed for parking and also for office space, Linger said.
“There’s no final decision yet on what’s going to go there,” he said. “We’ve discussed the idea of a parking structure underneath with a building on top. If the Office of Court Administration needs more space, we can do like a footbridge over the alley to the second floor of the courthouse.”
Nowack said she believes the buildings could have served the community in better ways.
“These buildings would have been a lot better if they were reused and contributing to our economy but now they’re nothing and that’s a pity,” she said. “The worst part is they were taken down for no reason. If those buildings were going to collapse, as it said in the engineering report, they would have collapsed by now. They’ve been there for two years.”
Nowack described the demolition as a historic moment.
“It’s just a sad moment for Catskill,” she said. “I think we could have done so much better and turned it into something that was really attractive for visitors and residents, but it wasn’t in the cards.”
Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, served as the Public Safety Committee chairman through the jail debates.
“It’s one of those things that needed to be done,” he said. “I know there are people who object to the sheriff’s office coming down. The only thing that might have been salvageable is the appearance on the outside. The buildings were no value to the county or to county residents.”
Lawrence did not see promise in the buildings for reuse.
“Using it for a storefront or place for community service just doesn’t work out in terms of its space,” he said. “It’s going to be better used in the future as an addition to the courthouse.”
The Historic Carriage House on the property will remain, Lawrence said.
“I think the Carriage House is more historic than the sheriff’s office,” Lawrence said. “And the jail itself was in danger of coming down. I’m surprised it took so long. It’s gone but it won’t be missed.”
The demolition contract was awarded in August to Jackson Demolition Service Inc., of Schenectady, in the amount of $344,431. An additional $70,253 was awarded to the company to remove the Ohio sandstone from the exterior of the building. The project is expected to wrap up in December.
The county’s new 64-bed jail on Route 9W in Coxsackie is expected to start accepting inmates in July 2021. The jail project is funded by a $39 million bond from Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. at 2.49% interest and an $8.1 million contribution from the county. Since the old jail’s closure in 2018, inmates have been boarded at Columbia, Ulster and Albany county jails.
The sheriff’s office moved to a temporary office on Mansion Street in Coxsackie in February 2019, where it will be housed until the new jail opens. The county purchased the temporary office in November 2019 for $400,000.