Cambridge's Past and Future

December 30, 1990

The Dorchester County Jail remains a painful symbol of Maryland's racial struggles of the early 1960s, when it housed many civil rights demonstrators. Now it again stands as a serious political problem in Cambridge and its surroundings. Key members of Historic Cambridge Inc., wish to preserve the 107-year-old Romanesque Revival building and turn it into a cornerstone of the city's own architectural revival.

However noble the intentions of preservationists, local opponents seem unlikely to give in easily, if at all. As County Commissioner Lemuel D. Chester sees it, "The jail has some memories I'd just as soon not think about." Mr. Chester, the county's first black commissioner, spent time in its cells as a young civil rights demonstrator. He and his supporters, who like him remember indignities of those times, want it torn down.

The years have not made the jail hospitable. Indeed, as recently as 1988, three prisoners were locked up in 6-by-7-foot cells. Only a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union forced reassignment of prisoners to temporary quarters until the county builds a new jail.

The critical question over what to do depends in which spotlight of history you wish to stand. Mr. Chester and fellow commissioners voted 4-0, before the elections, to seek a demolition permit. A new Board of County Commissioners -- including three first-termers -- is willing to reconsider the question, if enough citizens want to keep the jail.

Advocates for restoration want it redesigned for other uses, such as a law library. The jail sits in the shadow of the equally quaint and historic courthouse. Both are surrounded by some of Cambridge's most handsome 19th century dwellings.

Preservation of old Cambridge carries little weight with those who wish to tear down the jail. They should realize, however, that at least one individual places the demolition estimates at four times the cost of restoration. In addition, there is no guarantee that city officials will grant a permit to demolish the old jail, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are trade-offs that could satisfy both those who wish to demolish the structure and those who wish to preserve it. A marker recording the jail's place in the civil rights movement of the 1960s could remind Cambridge citizens just how far they have come. Though Cambridge has made little economic progress, it has learned through experience to live and work together.

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