Norwich — For 125 years, the locked gates kept people inside at 16 Cedar St., the site of the historic county jail from 1828 to 1953.
Now local developer Janny Lam hopes to build a new type of gate that would keep unwanted guests out of the nearly two-acre property with commanding views of Norwich Harbor and the Thames River — a gated condominium community.
Lam, who purchased the vacant property in 2004, submitted plans last week to build a 15-unit condominium complex surrounded by a 6-foot-high white fence with a gated main entrance on Cedar Street and a locked emergency entrance on Fountain Street.
Every unit would have a balcony and water views, Lam said. But she cautioned that the project could take a while to build in the current “soft” condo market.
“It's a little too far to talk about now,” Lam said. “We have to get our permits first. The market is really soft right now.”
The jail site sits in the heart of the Jail Hill National Historic District and gave the cliff-top neighborhood its name as far back as the 1820s. Because of its presence, property values surrounding it fell sharply, allowing the city's early African-American entrepreneurs to buy land “literally in the shadow of the jail,” city historian Dale Plummer said. Many of those houses remain standing today, built into the rocky ledge along steeply sloped streets above downtown.
When Norwich moved its government center in the 1820s, including the courthouse, from the Norwichtown Green area to the Chelsea District, the jail moved with it. The first jail was built on the cliff in 1828, but a prisoner burned the building to the ground just a few years later. Officials then constructed a mostly brick jail that grew to house 48 cells and the jailer's house — a stately white Greek Revival — in front.
The jail remained in use until 1953, when county leaders closed the antiquated quarters and moved prisoners first to the New London Jail — now Shiloh Baptist Church on Garvin Street — until the new prison in Montville was constructed.
Neighbors watched as the grounds became overgrown with weeds and the vacant building fell into disrepair. They urged the Board of County Commissioners to raze the building in 1960. The land eventually was sold into private hands.
But there it sat, through building booms and busts: vacant land with great views of Norwich Harbor and the summertime fireworks. Now the Mohegan Sun tower can be seen in the distance, and its fireworks displays can be seen as well.
“It hasn't been built on in 50 years,” Plummer noted, scanning the new condominium plans that show three buildings with five units each and ground-level garages.
Although the land is at the center of a national historic district that bears its name, Plummer was not aware of any state or federal regulations that would govern development of the vacant lot. Most of those rules cover renovation or demolition of existing structures.
State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni said he would like to have an archaeological assessment done on the jail property before it is developed. Bellantoni said he would call the city planner and recommend that the commission call for an assessment as condition of approval. There's no question that the property is of historic significance, as it is the central focus of the Jail Hill National Historic District.
The assessment would determine the potential for underground archaeological remains from the jail or the use of the site as a jail. If items are found, Bellantoni said his office would work with the developer on the plans to see if it's possible to avoid disturbing those resources. If it's not possible, the state could oversee removing those artifacts before construction.
“It's not going to stop the project,” he said, “but it allows for a procedure to protect the resources.”
City Planner Michael Schaefer said Friday he has not yet reviewed the plans, which were incomplete and not yet scheduled for review by the Commission on the City Plan. Schaefer said he would look into what historical district requirements might cover vacant land.
As for the new proposal, Plummer said he admires the work Lam has done throughout downtown, saving and renovating historic buildings along Main and Water streets.
He suggested this time that the new condos not try to mimic historic Jail Hill houses or even the former jail, photos of which are on file at Otis Library. Instead, Plummer said the buildings should be modern and “tasteful,” not overshadowing the working-class neighborhood homes that surround it. He recalled the several new affordable houses built on another large vacant property in Jail Hill several years ago by Eastern Connecticut Housing Opportunities. Plummer said ECHO did a good job blending into the neighborhood.
“It would be nice if they fit in with the neighborhood,” he said of the condos. “They don't have to be replicas of historic houses. They just have to not take away from the neighborhood.”