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Unlocking history
Phase two of history museum could soon launch

The cells on the second floor remain a reminder of the building’s original purpose. When it was built, the Newton County Jail on Stallings Street was considered state-of-the-art.

But it wasn’t just housing for criminals. It was the home of the county sheriff and his family during the early half of the 20th Century. They lived in the front of the building. The cell blocks and gallows room were at the back. A metal-roofed front porch was a community gathering place where, on Saturday nights, local amateur musicians would gather to play.

On Tuesday the Board of Commissioners (BOC) will be asked to release the 2011 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) collected to convert the now-empty building into a history museum, making it a hub for the community once again. The board came to a consensus on doing just that during its recent retreat in Athens.

“The history center will serve as a hub for information concerning other historic sites in the county, a meeting place for related programs and events, field trip destination for schools and a space for temporary and permanent exhibits relative to the county and its history,” said Cheryl Delk, Newton County Special Projects Coordinator.

“At the same time, it will inspire tourists and school children out to these other [historical sites], like Porterdale or the African-American history in Newton County,” she said. A sculptural kiosk outside the jail house already points visitors to different historic sites, including historic neighborhoods and cities, as well as others sites on the National Historic Register.
Phase 1 completed

Delk said the first phase of the project has been completed. The $500,000 project included replacing all the windows, tuck-pointing the mortar and cleaning the bricks and exterior trim, installation of an accessible ramp to the front, structural stabilization, restoration of the original metal roof and replacement of the original front porch.

“The [cells] on the bottom floor are gone and have been gone,” Delk said, “but the jail cells upstairs will remain. So will the gallows. I would love if someone would come forward to say if it had been used.”

So far, she said, she hasn’t found anything in her research to confirm that the gallows had ever been used.

A strategic plan for the creation of a historic museum in Newton County was submitted to the BOC in 2008. It was prepared by Avient Museum Services and The Center for Historic Planning and Preservation under Delk’s supervision.
“I think, even the film industry will be a small part of what’s told at the history center, the people in that business have brought so much tourism,” she said.

Part of the Covington Historic District, the future museum is within easy walking distance of the downtown Square, making it a destination for tourists and citizens, she said. “History tourism is one of the most popular in Georgia,” she said.

In fact, Georgia has become one of the top 10 states attracting visitors interested in exploring the history of an area. And Newton County has its share of historical sites, including the Burge and Gaither plantations, 19th Century mill villages, 1821 Brick Store, the college and Methodist church in Oxford and other sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

The next phase pending

Except for stabilization of the concrete floors, installation of new heating and cooling systems and repairing the metal vaulted ceilings, the interior of the building will be renovated in phase two of the project.

The interior renovation will be paid for from 2011 SPLOST monies, and is estimated to cost $950,000.

“We are confident that the $950,000 will be available [for the project],” Delk said. “The amount of the original referendum was $1.2 million. On the other hand, if there is a shortfall, that is when ‘value engineering’ comes in. We look for items that may not be essential or that can be accomplished at a later date in order to stay within the budget.”
So far, the 2011 SPLOST tax has raised $800,000 for the project, with more money accruing over the next year.

Because the plans for building the interior galleries and spaces have already been created, once the BOC approves the project, a consulting architect will help put together a request for bids, she said. The architect on “value engineering,” what can be done at a later date if the restoration project exceeds its $1.2 million budgeted amount.

Currently, the estimate for the interior renovation is $950,000, which covers professional services, removal of lead paint on the second-floor cells, parking updates, minor landscape repairs, cabinetry and display cases, exhibits and interpretive panels, furnishings and maintenance of the 2005 renovations.

Though there is no concrete timeline yet, Delk said the bid process should be complete within the next five months. She anticipates building could begin soon after the BOC approves a bid.

The restoration is a collaborative effort of the BOC and the Newton County Historical Society. In addition to SPLOST monies, additional funding for the administrative and operational planning for the future museum was provided by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the city of Covington and the BOC. Snapping Shoals Electrical Cooperative also provided additional funding.