LITCHFIELD — Developer Russell Barton stood in the unfinished kitchen area of the Marketplace Tavern in a section of the former Litchfield County Jail and a smile creased his face.
“I’m very excited and pleased that we are so close to the completion of this project,” said Barton, who, according to a report in the Litchfield County Times last year, bought the former jail four years ago from the state for $140,000. “It was a lot of work, money and took a lot of time, but we are here and it feels great.”
Barton and the four-member LLC that owns the property, at the corner of routes 63 and 202, had to jump through the usual proverbial governmental hoops to make their dream to turn the building into a mixed-use commercial center. They had to assure officials at each hurdle that the project would be tasteful, sensitive to the downtown area of town, and retain the historic nature of the building, which was built in 1812.
The end result is in keeping with Litchfield’s protective attitude on its storied history and heritage, while at the same time pumping new social and economic vitality into the center of town.
Partnering with Bannon on the project are his wife, Susi, and husband and wife Harriet Saltzman and Bob Meyers.
“This was an expensive project and not an easy one,” said Barton. “I don’t know if many people would have taken this on. But with all of my projects I had a vision, and this one came out exactly how I planned it would. Actually, it came out even nicer.”
While the outside of the former jail was given a new luster and coat of paint, the interior of the structure was rehabilitated. Many coats of paint were taken off stone and brick walls, new floors were installed, some new interior walls built and utilities updated.
Jail cells were retained, however, and are especially in evidence in the bar area of the new tavern, lending a most unique ambiance to the eatery that is sure to become a gathering place for locals and out-of-towners alike.
Local authorities were adamant that the bars remain on the windows facing the outside to retain the historic façade of the building and tell all that this was, indeed, a former jail. Incidentally, the jail’s longtime claim to fame was that it was the only such institution of incarceration in the country that shared a common wall with a bank, now Union Savings Bank.
“There really is nothing like it anywhere else in Connecticut,” said Eli Hawli, an owner of the tavern along with five similar establishments in the state. “It’s the only tavern in a former jail in the state. When Russell called me about the space I was very busy with another project in Southbury, but when I saw what could be done here and how unique it would be, I said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
Hawli said the tavern will feature “American tavern food,” with craft cocktails and beers sourced from area distilleries and breweries. He also plans to serve as much of the meats, fish and vegetables as possible from local farms and gardens.
“Customers like the fact that they are supporting local businesses when they go to a restaurant,” Hawli observed. “The setting will draw people in, but it is always the quality of the food and service that will keep them coming back.”
Hawli hopes to have the tavern open for business by Christmas, but the opening date may be pushed back to January, depending upon how the finishing touches proceed during the next few weeks.
He estimated the Litchfield Market Place Tavern will employ some 40 people, another key economic impact to the refurbishment of the former jail as a commercial venue.
Jeremy McKendry, like Hawli, wasn’t planning to move into the former jail. But when he drove through Litchfield one day and saw what was going on, he stopped, took a photo, and sent it to his girlfriend and business partner, Allison Varian.
“I was playing in a golf tournament in the area and I just happened upon the jail driving up from New York City where we were working as bakers. I sent a photo to Allison and she loved the space and the town.”
The couple soon was rehabbing an area on the lower level of the building that faces Route 202. And in May of this year, The Bakehouse was launched.
“There was a lot of work that went into cleaning up the space,” said McKendry. “Just the sink room in the back took workers three days to clean. But it came out fantastic, and the reception from the public has been great. I believe we filled a need in town and it’s like Litchfield has just sucked us in.”
Ann Taylor, a financial advisor with Bluedog Advisory, a financial planning and investment management services firm, is occupying a sizeable portion of the first floor portion of the former jail at abuts Unions Savings Bank. Taylor said being a resident of Litchfield made the relocation of her business to the former jail special.
“I’m so glad we were able to be a part of this effort,” she said. “We are bringing an economic relevance to the building but have also retained its historic significance. That was very important to us.
“We wanted to make the space clean, functional, open and modern in some ways but also show off the interior’s original architecture, such as the large stone wall and the brick walls,” taylor continued. “There was a strong desire to preserve those elements that make the building unique and historic.”
Barton said the occupancy of the refurbished building was organic. “We never advertised space in the building. We had little signs in the windows, and it was really all by word of mouth. We really believe this is beyond cool, and that people will come to Litchfield and say, `Wow, there is a lot going on in the center of town.’”
In all, the building will also house six retail enterprises on the street level facing the Litchfield Green. In addition to anther financial company, the second floor of the building facing Route 63 has three upscale apartments and one suite, the latter offering two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a gourmet kitchen within its 2,400 square foot space.
According to the website www.historicbuildings.com, the former Litchfield County Jail, constructed in 1812, is the oldest public building in town and one of the oldest penal facilities in the state. The jail had a cell block added in 1846 and a three-story wing with additional cell blocks in 1900.
In 1992, the jail closed and the building became a treatment center for men serving prison sentences. It was shut down in 1993 and reopened the following year as a rehabilitation center for women.
Upon the center’s closing, the State of Connecticut then sought to sell the building. According to a Dec. 2009 advisory issued by the state’s Department of Public Works, the public was invited to submit proposals to purchase the 12,390 square foot building, which had been designated as state surplus property. The building sat vacant for several years before it was sold in August 2014 to Barton.
The Borough of Litchfield, in 1959, was designated a historic district by a special act of the Connecticut General Assembly. In 1978, the borough and its 475 structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
Barton believes that history has been honored and preserved in the former Litchfield Jail. But now, beyond memories, it is filled with a new vibrancy, something its original builders may have never imagined.