When a tragic fire swept through the Smith Street Jail last June, the opportunity arose to rethink how the building, owned by the Norwalk Historical Society, might be better preserved and used for the city's benefit.
Since last year, Peter Bondi (vice-chairman of the Norwalk Historical Commission), David Westmoreland (president of the Norwalk Historical Society) and Alan Lo (building management for the City of Norwalk) have been working on a project to do just that. The group's plan is to have the building transformed for use by the historical society to showcase exhibits and expand its research space and storage.
"Right now we are interviewing historical architects because we are working on a plan to restore the jail to its historic standards," Bondi said.
The process has taken a long time. Since the fire the City of Norwalk submitted an insurance claim which is still being processed. The extra time has enabled the commission, historical society and the city government to move forward with new plans to change the use of the building from part-time residential to a complete restoration using all three floors.
The Smith Street Jail has been used for apartments since at least the early 1990s, and the original work to rehabilitate it was done in the 1970s, when Bill Ireland, now the city's chief building inspector, was the original contractor.
The historical society is also in the midst of reimagining Mill Hill Historic Park, long known for its collection of buildings representational of colonial Norwalk. (The Smith Street Jail, built in the mid-19th century, is from an era well past that.) The plans focus on linking the summit of Mill Hill to the waterfront with a pathway and reclaiming the old cobblestone parking spaces at the foot of the hill.
The plans are not without controversy. M.F. Discala's Head of the Harbor project, promoted by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency hopes to build townhouses on the same area that the historical society plans to use for the project. A compromise could be worked out with the townhouses being built farther away from the historic view of the Mill Hill summit—a view that has been depicted countless times in classic engravings.