Pre-Confederation jail on the market in Perth

·3 min read
Current owner Mickel Alexander examines the celing of a range of cells in the 160-year-old Perth jail. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
Current owner Mickel Alexander examines the celing of a range of cells in the 160-year-old Perth jail. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)

A jailhouse predating Confederation up for sale in the historic eastern Ontario town of Perth could be yours for less than the price of an average Canadian home.

Before it was mothballed by the provincial government in 1994, the Perth Gaol, an imposing, neo-gothic stone fortress, was the site of three hangings.

Now the 18 cells, gallows, fortified courtyard and more than a century and half of ghoulish history can be purchased for $495,000.

But put down that suitcase — Perth's "Big House" is not exactly move-in ready.

Derelict for years, with water pouring through a damaged roof and next to no air circulation, the jail has been subjected to its own punishment by the passage of time.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Designed by the famed Ontario architect Henry Horsey, whose name is on dozens of town halls, churches, and courthouses between Napanee and Kingston, the 1862 structure is a peeled, faded and dank shadow of its former self.

"As you can well imagine, a jail doesn't have opening windows," said the real estate agent sentenced to find a buyer.

This week, Ian Shackell, his real name, punched in the code on the realtor's lock box and opened the main door of the 160-year-old edifice.

A wave of foul, medieval-smelling air was discharged into the sunny parking lot.

"There's no question, there's lots of challenges," confessed the agent, who said it will need plumbing, electrical and extensive HVAC work.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Shackell said tire-kickers have mused about turning it into a boutique hotel, a residence for students of Algonquin College's Perth campus, just 300 metres away, an escape room or a multi-residential unit.

But that work will literally involve moving stone walls, many of them a metre or more thick.

With the structure zoned for institutional use and protected by the town's heritage rules, locking down a deal on the jail has been difficult, said Shackell, though he said he has been assured Perth wants to "keep an open mind."

If the challenges of the renos don't put off the prospective buyer, the dark history of three executions might.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Sentenced to hang for the murder of his wife Catherine in 1910, Rufus Weedmark was permitted a visit by his young children in the hours before, with journalists at the time recounting the "extremely pathetic" scene.

"Before his daughters left yesterday afternoon his youngest child, aged six, climbed upon the knees of her doomed father and, looking into his face asked, 'Why don't you come home with us?'" recounted the Perth Courier.

"Would you want to live there?" asked one neighbour, passing by the property with her leashed dog last week.

She said her brother, a prison guard at the jail in the 1980s, had complained even then that his workplace was excessively dark and gloomy.

Pandemic problems for owner

"COVID pulled the rug out from under my feet," said Mickel Alexander, an investor from London, Ont., who bought the jail in 2019 with plans to shoot a reality TV show featuring its history and restoration.

Delays caused by the pandemic, the skyrocketing cost of building materials and the steep price of the skilled labour that would be needed pushed the project out of reach.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

"I came out here thinking I could do this for a couple million bucks, but the experts are saying $20 million," he said.

Still, calling himself stubborn, Alexander said he would like to see his TV dream brought to fruition and has offered to partner with an investor who shares his love of historic stone buildings.

The poor state of the building has frustrated local historian Susan Code for decades.

She said closing the jail in the 1990s was a politically motivated, cost-saving act.

It was "a short-sighted decision — with no thought for follow through," said Code.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC