The 1870 Sheriff's Residence and Jail


Sheriff's Home

By the late 1860s, the small wooden jail constructed in 1838 no longer met Berrien County's needs. In 1866, the Board of Supervisors again called on architect Gilbert Avery to design a jail with an adjoining sheriff's residence.

Avery produced a very progressive design for the period, enclosing a circular block of cells within a square two-story brick building. The sixteen first-floor cells, each roughly pie-shaped, boasted limestone walls and floors. Strong iron bars and solid iron doors confined male prisoners. The second floor held eight larger cells intended for women, boys, and "less desperate characters". Topped by a skylight and ventilator, the buildings center core extended through both floors.

A pump and bathtub for the prisoners stood in the center of the first floor, illuminated by the skylight. A 700-barrel cistern collected rainwater to supply the bath.

Despite the jail's progressive design, prisoners sometimes escaped. On one occasion in 1883, eight prisoners pumped water out of the cistern in the center of the building, climbed inside and tunneled under the outside wall. The sheriff recaptured all but one prisoner. The jail tunnel became a short-lived tourist attraction, with one Niles woman seen heading home with a handful of tunnel earth.

Drawing of the Jail

This cut-away view off the second Berrien County jail illustrates the building's unique features. The cells on both floors were arranged in a circle in the center of the building. This created a "jail within a jail". If prisoners somehow got out of their cells, they were still contained within the building. A pump and a bathtub were located in the center of the circle created by the cells for the use of the prisoners. This central circle was open through both floors. A ventilator and skylight located on the roof allowed light and air to penetrate the center of the building.

The cell area was connected directly to the house for the sheriff and his family. The sheriff's office was located on the first floor and the Sheriff's wife served as jail matron. Members of the County Board of Supervisors took great pride in their new jail, which they regarded as representing a most progressive design for its day.

After the removal of the county seat to St. Joseph, the jail fell into disuse and was demolished. In 1992, construction began on an outdoor interpretive plaza located on the jail site. The low brick wall, constructed at seating height, defines the building's exterior dimensions. A protective layer of concrete now covers the circular foundation of the first-floor cells. Rebuilt to their original dimensions, two cells allow visitors to experience the constraints of living "behind bars" in the old county jail.


Sheriff's Home

Built 1869-1870 as part of the county jail project, an Italianate brick house was built for the county sheriff and his family. The county provided the house in exchange for the sheriff assuming responsibility for administering the courthouse square and his wife serving as jail matron.

The sheriff's office, located on the right as you enter the front door, now recreates the room's appearance during the 1870s. Other first-floor rooms, which now function as the special exhibits gallery, served as a front parlor and dining room. Bedrooms were located upstairs and the spaces are now museum offices. The rear wing contained a large kitchen where the sheriff's wife and domestic servants prepared meals for both her family and the prisoners. This portion of the structure is now used for collections and archival storage.