By Conrad Dudderar
EL RENO – A nonprofit group is spearheading an effort to save the old Canadian County Jail, with the goal to reopen the historic building in fall 2025 as a museum and education center.
Preservation El Reno has presented a detailed proposal to Canadian County Commissioners to make repairs and upgrades to the old jail site, 300 N Evans.
Canadian County Historical Society Museum President Vicki Proctor on Oct. 2 urged commissioners not to demolish the building – which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
A “new team” of “innovative” people has taken over Preservation El Reno, Proctor told commissioners.
“If you look at their proposal, they have come up with an amazing plan,” the El Reno native said. “It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody to save that jail. I just has got a lot of history to it.”
In August, Canadian County Commissioners decided not to allocate county funds to refurbish the 116-year-old building – which needs a new roof and structural repairs.
A proposed restoration/stabilization project would have cost an estimated $448,292. A second option to help preserve the building by installing a new roof totaled about $251,440.
Proctor told commissioners that Preservation El Reno wanted to buy the building from the county – but not the land or mineral rights.
Commissioners, however, said they were unsure whether they could sell the building without selling the land.
After discussion, the three commissioners at their Oct. 2nd meeting postponed action for two weeks on Preservation El Reno’s proposal so more research could be conducted.
Under the written proposal presented to commissioners, Preservation El Reno would purchase the building from Canadian County for a “nominal amount” before launching a campaign to raise funds to pay for significant interior and exterior work.
“I wanted you to see how serious they are,” Proctor said. “They’re ready to jump on it – like now.
“This new preservation group is outstanding. I’m so impressed with what they’ve come up with and how hard they’ve worked to try to make this work.”
A projected timeline presented to Canadian County’s elected leaders outlines lists of tasks to be done within 24 hours, seven days, 28 days, four months, six months, nine months, 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months.
This timeline would begin upon the purchase of the old jail site by Preservation El Reno.
“There’s very strict rules and statutes about how the county can sell property,” Canadian County Commission Chairman Dave Anderson said. “We can’t just come to an agreement and sell it.”
Commissioners would have to obtain an appraisal and then accept bid proposals from anyone interested in purchasing the property. It must sell for that appraised value.
“I prefer the lease approach,” said Anderson, the four-term District 2 commissioner. “If we sell that property and 50 years from now, Preservation El Reno decides they don’t want the property, those are complicated scenarios that I don’t want to see the county get in.”
Preservation El Reno plans to keep the historic jail building as a museum because of its value to the city of El Reno and significance of its architecture, Proctor replied.
If an agreement is reached, Chairman Anderson believes both the county commissioners and Preservation El Reno board members must agree on “benchmarks of expectation.”
Under the proposed timeline, the first steps would be to obtain liability insurance on the building, launch an extensive crowd sourcing campaign and meet with El Reno city leaders to discuss the plan and work with code enforcement.
The goal is to replace the old jail’s dilapidated roof before winter weather causes further damage – as fund-raising and grant-writing efforts get underway.
A structural engineer would evaluate the building’s safety and contractors would be hired to repair interior and exterior damage and make other upgrades.
While construction is underway, artifacts would be acquired before displays are assembled for the museum.
After obtaining an occupancy permit from the City of El Reno, Preservation El Reno would then host a grand reopening event.
The organization wants to promote the museum and education center as a stop along Route 66, which celebrates its centennial in 2026.
They also plan to market the museum’s historical and architectural significance; and promote to colleges.
Preservation El Reno envisions the new museum with exhibits featuring old jail history and artifacts, renowned architect Solomon Layton’s work and impact on Oklahoma, and Canadian County Courthouse history.
They see the education center as a learning space for those studying architecture, Oklahoma history and criminal justice.
It also would be a tourist stop along Route 66, ready in time for the centennial.
Renovating the old county jail into a museum is “key piece to the puzzle of making El Reno great” for tourism in 2026, Proctor noted.
If Canadian County Commissioners decide to demolish the building, they have discussed reclaiming as much material as possible to create a tribute plaza/courtyard on the site.
Some material also could be used in construction of a new county courthouse complex at a yet-to-be determined location.
The building is part of El Reno’s “amazing” history and heritage, Proctor added.
Designed by Layton, it was constructed in 1907 and used as the Canadian County Jail for 78 years. Layton is credited with the design of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Among other interesting facts about the old Canadian County Jail:
- When it opened, it featured a modern design for its time and was capable for safely housing men, women and boys.
- It was built with an escape route in case of prison riot.
- The old jail and adjacent stables are the oldest remaining structures for Canadian County government and provide a glimpse into the past.
- The architecture is unique in its use of Italian Renaissance design for a utilitarian building, demonstrating that jails do not have to be ugly or plain.
The old Canadian County Jail was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in November 1985. It was placed on Preservation Oklahoma’s endangered list in 2021.
Preservation El Reno had a lease on the building for a “long, long time,” Chairman Anderson noted.
When that agreement was made in 1995, the sheriff’s office was still using the old jail building to store evidence. Preservation El Reno could not have access to the building until the evidence was removed – but that didn’t happen until the 2000s.
“That aspect of the lease can be erased,” Anderson told preservation representatives. “We can do a 100-year lease for a very nominal fee, and give you total access to the building – if that’s an option and more feasible for you.
“I prefer that, because it remains owned by the county.”
During the last six years, Canadian County Commissioners and Preservation El Reno members discussed the need to replace the roof – which has partially caved in.
“I felt strongly if the county was going to spend public dollars, the county should have control of the building,” Anderson said.
In March 2022, commissioners agreed to release that lease agreement – with the implied intent they would take action to replace the roof.
But Anderson said he never considered that to be an “open-ended promise with an unended budget.”
Commissioners hired a construction manager to obtain bids to see what it would cost to replace that roof and make other upgrades to the historic jail building.
That cost exceeded Anderson’s comfort level. He does not believe county commissioners “should invest the kind of money” that the contractors said it would take to perform the work.
OWN OR LEASE?
El Reno City Council Member Amy Neathery, speaking on behalf of Preservation El Reno, told commissioners that a lease on the building would not work for the group to achieve its goal.
“We cannot get the kind of grant funding for a building we don’t have legal ownership to,” said Neathery, an El Reno attorney. “That’s been part of the problem.
“If it’s just a lease, I fear we would still have to go through bidding processes because the county owns it. As a nonprofit owning a building, we can get donations, we can exchange publicity, we can get tax write-offs.”
Neathery anticipates Preservation El Reno obtaining much lower construction prices so building upgrades are made much faster than the county could.
“I can talk to a contractor today and commit to a contract much quicker than you can,” she told commissioners. “Mr. Anderson, your concerns about ultimate use and what happens in 50 years, those can go into a sale contract (as deed restrictions).”
When Preservation El Reno takes ownership of the building, Neathery said Canadian County Commissioners would not have to “spend another dime on it” as the group develops the new museum and education center.
“And just watch us work,” she added. “It will be something the county, once again, will be really proud of.”
Chairman Anderson asked whether Preservation El Reno leadership is comfortable taking title to a property they could never sell.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Neathery responded.
“I don’t want it to be anything else. I don’t think anybody in this room does. We want it to be a museum, and there’s a huge educational component that has not been capitalized on in decades.”
Anderson also asked Neathery what would happen if Preservation El Reno’s fund-raising campaign was not successful.
“We have a line of credit that we are working on with the bank, and we have a backer for that line of credit,” she replied. “So, I don’t have any concerns there.”
The non-profit Preservation El Reno is eligible for grant funding from various foundations and organizations for this historic building.
“I will burn the midnight oil writing grants,” Neathery said. “I have no problem writing as many grants as it takes.”
Chairman Anderson said he hopes Preservation El Reno would be successful in its efforts – but emphasized “there’s some work to do” and many dollars to raise.
“I love the idea of saving the old jail – especially with donations and grants,” he said. “But I don’t want to get in the same position we were in before.”
Canadian County District 1 Commissioner Tom Manske then asked, “What is the plan B?”
Neathery responded, “There will be a roof on before winter. The worst-case scenario is if our fund-raising effort is delayed, the 24-month timeline becomes a 36-month timeline.”
Preservation El Reno is highly motivated to have this renovation project done and the museum open by fall 2025 – in time to welcome tourists for the Route 66 centennial in ’26.
“My heart tells me, we will have the money,” Neathery told county commissioners.
‘HOW CAN WE DO THIS?’
Before Canadian County Commissioners decide on Preservation El Reno’s proposal, both parties must do further research into the historic property’s sale or lease.
“I’ve never heard of selling the building and not the land,” Commissioner Manske said. “Is that even possible? Can you sell the building and not the land?
“Anybody I’ve ever talked to, any bank I’ve ever talked to – you cannot build a building on something unless you own the land.”
Real property is the ground plus the improvements on it, Anderson pointed out.
Assistant District Attorney Tommy Humphries told commissioners he did not know if selling only the old jail building was an option.
Commissioner Manske believes the only way this would work is if the county also sold Preservation El Reno the land “at fair market value”.
Preservation El Reno is happy to own the land too, Neathery said.
But they want to make the sale process easy while avoiding the county incurring the cost of a survey to have a clean deed, she added.
District 3 County Commissioner Tracey Rider, a former El Reno City Council member, was impressed with Preservation El Reno’s proposal to save the old county jail.
“These are great first steps,” Rider said. “Thank you to every one of you for putting the time, effort and knowledge into presenting something like this.
“We’re all open to looking at ‘can we do this?, how can we do this?’”