Franklin’s Old, Old Jail

These days, if something doesn’t work well or doesn’t look good, it’s likely to be thrown out and replaced with something new. Some things, however, like old buildings steeped in history, cannot be so easily replaced, nor should they be. 

Fortunately, the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County understands this and tries to preserve historical sites. The foundation’s mission is “To preserve the communities and cultural heritage of Williamson County. We work with area leaders to continually care for historic spaces, treasured landmarks and cherished local businesses. In short, we save the places that matter in Williamson County, Tennessee.”

Their latest success story is the renovation of the old, old Franklin Jail located at 112 Bridge St. in Franklin. It’s called the “old, old” jail because there were once three jails on Bridge Street.

Built in 1941 for $25,000, the two-story jail was a no-frills steel and concrete edifice to house prisoners. Some of these inmates included Better Burge, the first woman in Tennessee sentenced to death in the electric chair; and convicted murderer Willie York, who became rather infamous for being the inspiration behind a song by Johnny Seay, a country music singer and neighbor. Titled “Willie’s Drunk and Nelly’s Dying,” it was released in 1970.

The jail was eventually closed after a newer one was built in 1973, and afterward, it served many purposes such as book storage for the school system, an employment office and a highway patrol outpost. Eventually, due to its deteriorating condition, it became vacant in 2008. The roof eventually leaked, leaving all the metal inside with a coating of rust. The art deco-style building had no working electricity or plumbing and was filled with asbestos, mold and lead paint. It was literally in ruins.

Even with all these issues, the Heritage Foundation saw its potential and knew that saving and restoring the building could be the biggest challenge they ever faced. Though it was scheduled to be demolished, they persevered and bought the building in 2013 for $25,000 with a donation from FirstBank, knowing they would have to raise millions to bring it back to life.

And so, they rolled out their Big House for Historic Preservation fundraising campaign and for the next three years worked to raise the necessary money to turn the dilapidated structure into modern, usable office space. All in all, it would take $2.8 million to complete the renovations.

The grand opening of this beautifully restored and environmentally friendly building with its cut-stone foundation and grand stairway took place in May 2016 and became the permanent home of the Heritage Foundation. Now called the LeHew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation, it serves not only as the headquarters for the foundation but also as a resource for historic preservation issues.

“It is fantastic that the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County is headquartered in the LeHew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation in historic Franklin. I am grateful to the leaders who came before me and had the vision and determination to save this building, says Bari Beasley, the foundation’s CEO. “We host guests almost daily for tours, and we enjoy telling stories of the many characters who spent time in the jail throughout the years.” 

Along the restored stairwell hang almost 200 historic photographs of the city. The old graffiti, etched into the concrete and steel walls by former prisoners, has also been preserved.

“When the Heritage Foundation saved the Old, Old Jail, it was truly like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. No one wanted the white elephant because it was leaky, mold-ridden, costly to make livable yet a solid piece of concrete and steel. The project was a win-win situation. The Foundation found a home, and a county landmark was saved,” says Rick Warwick, the county historian.

Timeline for Franklin’s “Old, Old Jail”
1941: The jail opens on Bridge Street, replacing an older facility located next door. Cells for men and women are segregated by race.
1960s–1970s: The jail houses 25 to 30 prisoners at a time, most serving sentences of 30 to 60 days. Prisoners do the cooking and cleaning.
1973: The jail closes.
1973–2008: The building is used for various purposes.
2008: The building is permanently vacated.
2010: Franklin declares the two Bridge Street jails as surplus property.
2013: Using a $25,000 donation, the Heritage Foundation buys the “old, old” jail.
2016: Opening of the Big House for Historic Preservation.
2018: Renamed the LeHew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation.