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Regular readers of the blog might be lead to believe by this week’s title that I am going to tell you that DiMella Shaffer has yet another new project type, a different kind of housing, for a special population. Known as the “Big House,” it is not the housing choice of most people, but read on to find out what changed some minds.

The Old Norfolk County Jail in Dedham was declared surplus by the Commonwealth’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) when the new Dedham Jail opened in the median of Route 128 in 1993. Diamond/Sinacori LLC., with DiMella Shaffer as the architect, responded to the RFP put out by DCAM to sell the building. The site consisted of the jail, the sheriff’s house, carriage barn, and three single-family houses. While most of the responses called for demolition of the structure in order to build single-family housing, our response called for the renovation and adaptive re-use of the building.  Our team proposed gutting the entire interior of the building to create condominiums within.  We were ultimately selected by a committee of DCAM, members of the Dedham Historical Society, and representatives of the neighborhood.

Merrill Diamond of Diamond/Sinacori explained the logic for reuse: “We decided to convert the building to a residential use as recognition of the market for condominiums to accommodate “empty-nesters” from the neighborhood (and some other communities near Dedham) who wanted to sell larger homes and move to a condominium, but also wanted to stay involved in the Dedham community. One of the jail’s primary amenities was its location in a great neighborhood, a short walk to Dedham Square with easy access to public transit and highways leading to Boston.” It is located in Precinct One, one of the Commonwealth’s most historic and beautiful residential areas, still to this day. Merrill’s three decades of condominium development and sales experience allowed him to see the potential of the location and past the building’s former use.

Old Norfolk County Jail in the center of Precinct One (From Apple Maps)

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCEOriginally constructed in 1816, the Old Norfolk County Jail underwent substantial renovations in 1850 and 1875 under the direction of noted Boston architect J. Gridley Bryant.  Collaborating with penal reformer Lewis Dwight, Bryant gained a national reputation for his design of the Suffolk County Jail in 1848. Shortly after the Suffolk County Jail was completed in Boston, Bryant and Dwight were hired to design a similar jail for Norfolk County. The jail adopted the same plan in which there was a central octagonal block with three wings (projecting east, west, and north) in a T-shaped configuration. This arrangement allowed prisoners to be placed in cellblocks in the wings that could be observed by guards on duty in the central octagon. Located in the center of a residential district, the imposing stone jail, like most of the Bryant prisons, was constructed of quarry-faced ashlar granite with quoins, the chief difference in the design being the window treatment and the cupola, which had been removed. For Norfolk County the architect employed large ogee-shaped windows, their size considered important for natural light and ventilation. In 1870, Bryant designed an extension to one of the wings, and ten years later he returned to design the keeper’s house, a two-and-one-half-story building added to the south side of the octagon. Also on the property is an Italianate style carriage barn.

Stoneleigh exterior and interior before renovation.

When we began work on the renovation, the exterior of the building had hardly changed from the time of its last major addition completed in 1880. It was a remarkably well-preserved judicial and penal complex, and the jail itself was architecturally significant as an individual building. The building is a derivative of Haviland’s Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The Dedham Jail may be of even greater architectural significance than Bryant’s Charles Street Jail because it was less altered and retained the keeper’s house and carriage barn as well as its 19th century setting.

The Old Norfolk County Jail’s main claim to fame was housing the famous prisoners Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti while they were being tried and then convicted at the Dedham Courthouse in 1921 for the murder of two shoe company employees during an armed payroll robbery in Braintree. They were ultimately sentenced to death and were electrocuted in the Charlestown Jail in 1927.


The principle design and preservation initiatives were to maintain the building’s character while providing both the quantity and quality of the dwelling units necessary for financial feasibility. The site was converted into twenty-four condominium residences consisting of twenty two- and three-bedroom condominium units of 1,800 to 2,500 square feet in the redeveloped granite jail facility and four detached single homes that were renovated and expanded. The carriage barn was retained and converted into a single family home.  As you can see below the cellular nature of solid masonry construction dictated the unit modules and vertically organized units.

Upper Floor Plan.

A primary challenge of the design of Stoneleigh was adapting the large arched windows to accommodate several floors of condominium units. Inserting wood spandrels consistent with the design of the window patterns provided for the insertion of intermediate floors.

Accommodating parking for the units on a 19th-century site that was largely occupied by the building was another challenge. This was solved by utilizing portions of the first floor and building some free-standing garage structures so that each unit could have one inside and one outside space. The garage doors were discreetly located under balconies in line with the large window openings.

Left: Site Plan   Right: Garage door integrated into the facade.

As always happens in renovation work, there were some hidden surprises. For example, the granite floors were several feet thick to prevent tunneling, something that we discovered when interior demolition began. This is a testament to the design thinking and tools available at the time, and even with modern tools, it made the underground plumbing a challenge. Working closely with the owner and CB Construction, reconstruction of the building and the site proceeded smoothly and the project was built on time and on budget.

One of the amenities originally proposed was a small public park and “victory garden” located at the corner of the property. Conceived to recognize the imprisonment of Sacco and Vanzetti, the historic panels were to feature the famous painting and lithograph by Ben Shahan (see below) and a plan of their jail cells marked in the pavement of the park. This was voted down by the neighborhood who felt that such an approach was honoring two anarchists and murderers, although Governor Dukakis had already pardoned both of them. The pardon, granted in 1977, 50 years after their execution, was recognition of the flawed trial that typified the treatment of immigrants who migrated to the United States from Europe during the first part of the 20th century. It did not comment on their guilt or innocence. The park was created anyway as a place for sitting and quiet contemplation.

Left: Shahan Lithograph   Right:  Victory Gardens.

Merrill certainly hit on a trend of the empty nesters and approximately 50% of the units were sold prior to the completion of construction with the rest sold shortly after the renovation was completed. The building’s prior use did not seem to be an impediment to prospective buyers. An article from 1999 on quoted interested buyers:”It adds charm and interest,” said Murray Vendeveldt, a stockbroker in his 50s,”I’d be more uncomfortable in a restored church. I don’t know if The Man would think it was a good idea.”“It’s so close to everything — Route 128, the train station, the Mass Pike, and you can walk to a lively downtown with a theater and restaurants,” said Katie Carton, 50, an insurance agent.The new fenestration, while architecturally compatible, changes the perception of the building by being transparent and domestically scaled. Removal of the accoutrements of the jail like bars and walls make the building friendly. The quality of the original architecture makes the building a welcome if imposing neighbor. The retention and restoration of the four wood frame houses means the neighborhood does not experience great physical change but gets new neighbors with decidedly better reputations. The reuse of well-located historic buildings is a holistically sustainable approach.

In 2004, the Massachusetts Historical Commission presented DiMella Shaffer with their preservation award for the adaptive re-use of the jail and keeper’s house. The project was recognized for creatively transforming the building’s use while preserving the exquisite details such as those shown below.

I have always loved how light is so necessary for architecture.

It is a tremendous privilege and always a learning experience to work with these old structures. The workmanship, attention to detail, and sense of proportion are all things to behold and learn from. The level of architecture applied to this jail is representative of the value placed upon public buildings in the 19th century regardless of their function. The loss of this collective pride in our civic buildings is something to be mourned. While we don’t value prisons much today and mostly move them far from society as whole, next time you pass the Norfolk County Jail in the median of Route 128, give some thought to the value of our public architecture.