The awarding last week of a bid that will clear the way for the demolition of the old Main Street jailhouse in Bel Air highlights a question small towns are increasingly obliged to answer: Is it historic or is it just old?
A few weeks ago, at the corner of Alice Anne and Bond streets, the answer with regard to a 99-year-old shotgun shack known as the James-Kennedy house was that the building was old, but not historic enough to warrant saving.
Many years ago, when the Harford County Courthouse on Main Street had become too small to house the necessary number of courtrooms, it was expanded, but special care was given to preserving and highlighting the old part of the building.
Thus, the Courthouse, including its historic Main Street section, continues to be both a useful piece of the present and a visible reminder of how things were done years ago.
The jailhouse, by contrast, would be a difficult structure to identify from street level. Modern buildings – all now housing functions of the Harford County Sheriff's Office – have been appended to the 1857 vintage jail, but its plain construction gives it the look of an afterthought addition to the larger, more modern buildings.
At 156 years old, it certainly is among the oldest structures in Bel Air. This probably derives from the need, even 156 years ago, to build jails more solidly than most other buildings. As a relic of bygone times, its value is probably rather limited, if for no other reason than it was largely swallowed by other more modern buildings.
Unless more compelling evidence comes to the forefront, it's probably best to let the jail fade into history with other structures that may have been more worthy of saving, but exist now only in memories and old photographs.