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Demolition set for historic Jailhouse Gallery
special report
City of Morganton
Clearing the way

Demolition set for historic Jailhouse Gallery

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A landmark on the historic courthouse square in Morganton is quickly approaching its end.

The old Burke County jail, more recently known as the Jailhouse Gallery, is scheduled to be demolished after Aug. 18 to make way for renovations taking place on the square, according to Sharon Jablonski, director of the Department of Cultural and Creative Development for the city of Morganton.

The structure was built in 1913 to house local prisoners, according to historical documents archived at the North Carolina Room of the Burke County Public Library. It was built to look like a house with Colonial Revival details, designed by the Pauley Jail Company of St. Louis, Missouri, and constructed by Camden Iron Works of Salem, Virginia.

“The story that I heard is that the jailer and his family lived upstairs, and the jailer’s wife would make food for the prisoners,” said Laurie Johnston, curator of the NC Room.

She believes a fire is what caused the removal of the second floor of the structure in 1940. A bay addition was attached on the side of the first floor around that time.

The building was used as a jail until the 1970s, when it was condemned by the North Carolina Department of Social Services. At the time, the jail could hold up to 16 male prisoners. News Herald articles shared reports from the time that described toilet facilities in the jail as “out-moded and sub-standard.” In the cells, metal bunk beds with broken slats held dirty mattresses. The building inspectors cited poor lighting and ventilation.

“Where the jail is concerned, there is a thin line drawn between law and order and cleanliness and decency,” read a report from an inspector named T.A. Early.

Clifton Craig, commissioner of the NCDSS at the time, gave the order for the jail to close by Jan. 7, 1970.

“The deficiencies of the Burke County Jail are such that safe custody, health and welfare of prisoners confined therein, as well as the safety of staff, are in jeopardy,” Craig wrote in a letter to county commissioners.

Since the next closest jail was in Lenoir, Craig allowed the jail to be used for two-hour lockups until the county could build a new facility, completed in 1976.

The Burke Arts Council teamed up with the Morganton Service League in the early 1970s to approach the Burke County Board of Commissioners with the idea of renovating the building for the arts council to use instead of having it torn down, and the county agreed. The arts council moved there in January of 1977 and held its first exhibition, a collection of 33 paintings created by nationally known artist Leon Stacks, who had come to live in Burke County.

A history of Broughton Hospital posted online by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services notes that the first public exhibit of Broughton patients’ art was held at the gallery sometime in the 1980s.

The Burke Arts Council used the facility until it moved to a building on South Sterling Street earlier this year. The art council’s move makes way for the city’s plans to transform the courthouse square into a recreation/entertainment space called “Center Square Park,” complete with a stage to accommodate TGIF and other concerts for the community to enjoy.

The Morganton city council set aside $45,000 in its 2019-20 budget for removing the Jailhouse Gallery from the courthouse grounds, according to a previous News Herald article.

Not everyone in the community is happy about the plans to raze the historic building. Some have voiced their concerns at city planning meetings, as reported in previous News Herald articles. Longtime resident Dottie Ervin shared her thoughts about it.

“It’s been here for over 100 years, and it’s a landmark that I hate to see come down,” Ervin said. “I think that some money could be put into it, and it could be used for something.

“There are two things that I hate to see come down if they don’t need to: an old building and a tree.”

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at

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