Windsor

'I think the building has a lot more stories to tell us': former Chatham jail purchased for $1M

The Chatham jail finally has a new owner. After sitting empty since July 2014, the Warrener family has purchased the building.

The jail has sat empty since 2014

The Chatham jail was built in 1849 and closed in 2014. (ontariogenealogy.com)

The Chatham jail finally has a new owner.

After sitting empty since July 2014, the Warrener family has purchased the building. 

The jail was identified as surplus and offered to the municipality — and then went up for public sale this fall. 

New owner Carson Warrener said they were waiting for it to come on the market.

"We knew that it's use was coming to an end, so that was kind of a hint," said Warrener about its 2014 closure. "We were always watching it. We love the history, we love the challenge of repurposing these buildings that had a very specific use."

The Chatham jail closed in 2014 while operating at 80 per cent capacity. (Andreanne Baribeau/Radio-Canada)

The Warreners have already restored a number of projects, most notably the Chatham Armouries. They also restored an 1887 home which became Chatham's first official structure.

Warrener calls those projects a success.

"We believe with a historic building, if you can't get the building to support itself that's how one day it will meet its doom," said Warrener. "[We] create enough value that they can support themselves."

Steeped in history

The Chatham jail was built in 1849 and was operating at 80 per cent capacity when it closed. At the time, Steven Small, the assistant deputy ministry of corrections called it outdated and inefficient.

"It costs a lot to run and now we're going to have a modern state-of-the-art facility in Windsor," Small said in 2014. All but six of the 45 employees went to work at the new Southwest Detention Centre.

Carson Warrener has been involved in major historic renovations in Chatham, including the Chatham Armouries. (Carson Warrener)

According to Warrener, the building was the main courthouse and jail for the area, built using limestone from the nearby Thames River.

Canadian Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie worked on the building's construction as a stone mason — before he was ever prime minister of course.

The jail has received historic designation from the municipality.

Purchasing process

"It wasn't fun," said Warrener about the process to purchase the site. He calls it bureaucratic and formal, adding that it was "hard."

"I can see a good owner not being able to make it through that process." 

Warrener says the average purchaser might not be able to wade through the process. 

The Warreners paid about $1 million for the jail.

Preservation and future use

Chatham-Kent councilor Doug Sulman says the jail is an important landmark in the old part of Chatham.

"I am very happy it's been sold to a Chatham family who are preservers of buildings," said Sulman. "The whole family will preserve the character. They have a great reputation for that."

Warrener said the question now is what to do with the building.

"How do we bring that building back up to create some economic value in it and how do we integrate that back into the community," said Warrener.

"We don't look at these buildings as things we own, we're custodians of them."

Sulman hopes the Warreners will put their collection of "interesting objects from all over the world" on display, but they're not quite sure.

Inmates and staff were transferred to the South West Detention Centre after the Chatham jail closed in 2014. (CBC File Photo)

"A lot remains to be seen," said Warrener, adding that a film shoot is already scheduled for February 2019. 

"I think the building has a lot more stories to tell us — and maybe that's its purpose … it just tells stories of its past."

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