NORWALK, Conn. It's hidden in plain sight on a crumbling bit of pavement, accessed only by walking past a sign that says do not enter. It's a small, unobtrusive two-story building with an odd front of half stone and half brick. It was once an integral part of life in Norwalk but not in a pleasant way.
In the early 1800s, it was the "City Lockup." The cramped dank, dark rooms housed Norwalkers who misbehaved and prisoners who were being transferred from one jail to another. Much more recently, the upstairs was rented out by the city as apartments. But the building is on its way to becoming one of Norwalk's historical attractions, a museum in the shadow of Mill Hill Historic Park.
David Westmoreland, president of the Norwalk Historical Society, said the plan is to bring over the third-graders who take part in the society's Little Red Schoolhouse program.
The building is on Smith Street, behind the Fat Cat Pizza Company. Its apartments dated to the '70s but were made uninhabitable more than a year ago. One of the tenants had a lot of books, which caught fire and burned. Rather than restore it to apartments, the building will be renovated according to the historical society's specifications. The Common Council on June 14 approved the group's choice of architect.
"We have a very aggressive plan with the city," Westmoreland said of the timeline for the restoration. "The architects believe it's five or six weeks of work for them. Then we go out to bid, and we hope to start construction in the fall."
The downstairs doesn't need much work beyond cleaning and paint. Bars remain on the windows from its days as a lockup, and there are small windowless rooms along the back, where people were held for a few days. Plans are to show it as the City Lockup on one side and house a pottery display on the other, because historians believe it was originally part of Norwalk's bustling pottery industry.
Westmoreland expects a potter to be on site doing a demonstration when the third-graders visit. There is also a thought of doing a "Famous Prisoners of Norwalk" talk.
The upstairs needs a thorough renovation. Installation of a new roofing system will add three feet of storage space overhead. The society plans to put its collection, which is now in storage, on permanent display in glass cases. It will also provide a space for curators to work.
The museum will be open on weekends and will be part of the hoped-for Harbor Loop Trail. The museum is also part of the master plan for Mill Hill: a switchback path is expected to be built down the hill, so visitors can walk to the museum.
"We actually hope to be opening next summer," Westmoreland said. "I think we're going to have some kind of open house before we even move into it so the public can see the building and start appreciating it again, because it's been pretty lonely down here on Smith Street."
Did you know about the old City Lockup?
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