Opinion | Old buildings never come back

There is currently a debate right now in Norristown about whether an old prison should be demolished. By all accounts the building isn’t in the best shape and hasn’t been used in decades.

The old prison was designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the architect behind the Academy of Music and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. It looks like a castle.

While advocating for its demise, Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence pointed to its history. He stated:

As I stated at a recent meeting of the county’s commissioners, we are not prepared to ask taxpayers to spend millions of dollars to preserve a crumbling, environmentally hazardous structure that stands as a monument to a carceral system that disproportionately and unfairly punished those living in poverty, people of color, and members of other marginalized groups.

Tearing down this structure will not change the inequities in our criminal justice system, but we also refuse to invest in celebrating the sad legacy that the building represents.

Our focus should be on keeping people out of our current jail, rather than preserving the old one.

That view is rather shortsighted. Can you imagine the Fairmount section of Philadelphia without the historic ruin that is Eastern State Penitentiary? That site today, which once had to be saved from the wrecking ball, shares the prison’s awful history through tours and programs, while bringing economic impact to the surrounding community.

But lets look at what happens when you tear down interesting or useful buildings (even if they aren’t architecturally important). The Borough of Conshohocken, through a federal program, completed a process in 1981 to clear 25 acres to make way for redevelopment. That process has been very successful.

The lone building that was saved within that 25 acres was the firehouse that just in very recent years was renovated to become part of Hotel West & Main and serve as the home of two restaurants. It sat empty for decades and now is a crown jewel within the borough.

However, one of the complaints about Conshohocken is that beyond a bunch of great restaurants, there isn’t much in the way of nightlife or something to do. Now imagine if they hadn’t knocked down less auspicious movie theater that sat near the firehouse within the 25 acres. Today, there might be a downtown movie theater like in Ambler, or a live theater. Once those type of buildings are gone, they are gone forever and they never come back.

So while Norristown desperately needs redevelopment, it should really be careful it doesn’t knock down buildings that could serve as cornerstones for redevelopment. Buildings that could serve a purpose. Buildings that can be important again.

You can always knock it down later.

Photo: Help Save Historic Norristown Prison on Facebook