Westwego — A few steps from Westwego’s City Council chambers behind a seemingly innocuous door lies a small slice of Jefferson Parish antiquity.
It’s not a long-lost painting, or some forgotten monument to the parish’s forefathers. Instead, it’s an imposing set of black iron doors, crisscrossed with equally impressive bars. It’s the old Westwego jail: one of the oldest buildings in the city and one of two antique jails in the parish.
As the city prepares to build a brand new governmental complex on Fourth Street, Westwego City Councilman Ted Munch is trying to save the old building so that Westwego’s children can see how things used to operate in the one-square- mile city.
“This is a piece of Westwego history,” Munch said.
Munch admits that it might seem odd to want to save a jail. After all, most people see jails and prisons as things to avoid, not celebrate. But Munch said the jail was one of the first governmental buildings ever built in the city and deserves to be remembered. He calls its architecture and design a “throwback,” and believes schoolchildren can learn from seeing how things used to be made.
“It just has a different kind of look,” said Munch, who got the Westwego City Council to pass a resolution earlier this month asking for Mayor Johnny Shaddinger to try to save the jail when the city demolishes its City Hall.
Former Westwego Mayor Daniel Alario remembers that special look quite well. Alario is a member of the town’s historical society, and he grew up in a time when the jail was a major feature of the city’s downtown. He remembers being brought over to the building with a group of young boys by a police officer and getting a tour as a way to drill it into his head to stay on the straight and narrow.
Alario said another historical society member tells a funny story about trying to get to sleep as a child while prisoners in the jail yelled about wanting to go home just a few feet away. He says the woman’s family would often yell back at them to pipe down so they could get some sleep.
The historical society supports any efforts to save the old building, Alario said. “It would be great if we could save the old jail,” he said.
The jail is in danger because as a condition of FEMA spending $3.8 million to build the city a new governmental complex on Fourth Street, Westwego must demolish its existing City Hall. That building has been plagued by flooding for decades, and FEMA wants it gone so that no more claims can be filed regarding it. Munch hopes that federal officials will exempt the jail from the ruling, or will at least allow the city to move the building to another location.
Shaddinger said that he’s fine with saving the jail as long as it doesn’t cause any problems with the city’s plans to put in a new package drinking water plant or interfere with the plans for the new governmental complex. However, they mayor also said he doesn’t see the allure of a building that was used to lock people up.
“I’ve never been in that jail, and I’ve never been arrested before so it doesn’t have any historical significance to me,” Shaddinger said. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with what we have to do at the water plant, I don’t have a problem with it.”
A more significant problem will be the cost of preserving the building. Munch acknowledges that no funding exists to move it to another location, and it’s uncertain where the city would find that money. Westwego’s budgets have been extremely tight in recent years, and even state capital outlay funds would require matching city dollars.
“This is just the first step,” Munch said.
Even if the city doesn’t manage to move the jail to a new location, saving it in its current spot would be worthwhile, said Police Chief Dwayne Munch Sr. Munch noted that Westwego’s City Hall and old police station grew up around the jail. The jail was there when police operated out of a trailer out front, he said.
Munch’s department occasionally used the old cells to briefly hold arrestees until they could be moved to the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, but that practice ended in 2010 when police moved to their new station on Fourth Street. Westwego’s municipal court also used the cells to hold people arrested for violating city ordinances, he said.
Munch thinks the jail stopped being used regularly back in the 1950s and 1960s when new health and safety regulations made it too costly for a small city to operate its own facility. He understands the change but said that unlike some facilities today, Westwego’s old jail made it obvious that jail was a place to avoid.
“It gives you a different outlook on how people were held in jail. It’s a different animal completely,” Munch said. “Jails of today should look like that jail… Maybe we’d have less people who want to go.”
Westwego isn’t the only local municipality with an antique jail hidden behind its walls. Although the official Gretna jail was torn down a few years ago, in the rear of the Gretna City Hall are about four or five cells that used to serve the old Jefferson Parish courthouse. Those cells, with their traditional iron bars and miniscule floor space, are now used for storage by the city.
Gretna Deputy Police Chief Anthony Christiana said that occasionally the city’s police department will use the cells to store evidence, but mainly they are forgotten. The old rooms smell of dust and mold, but looking at the cells it’s easy to imagine a different time. Those old cells aren’t in danger or being destroyed, but Christiana thinks it would be great if they could improved as part of an overhaul of the old courthouse.
“We’re always looking for grants to restore the building,” Christiana said.