The massive Atlantic County government complex in downtown Mays Landing is undergoing a major makeover.

For the past several weeks, construction workers have been repairing the worn-out brickwork of the government buildings, renovating the windows and fixing up the octagonal belfry on top. "Basically we're re-sprucing it up," said Glen Mawby, the Atlantic County director of facilities management, about the $1.3 million first phase renovation during a tour last week. The repairs should be completed by the end of the year, Mawby said, and other upgrades are proposed.

The block-long government complex is part of Hamilton Township's historic district, which started with the county courthouse. The land for the courthouse was donated in May 25, 1838, by resident Samual Richards, and it was built soon thereafter, according to "The Daily Union History of Atlantic City and County," by John F. Hall. Other buildings were added as the decades passed. The main building now encompasses 64,710 square feet. In the back is a utility building, the sheriff's house and two former jails that date around 1840 and 1964, according to the township's application to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Under the second phase of construction, the brownstone 1840 county jail will be preserved and linked to the rest of the complex with a new connector and elevator. One or two holding cells will be kept intact as an exhibit, and the rest of the building will be refurbished for offices and records storage, Mawby said. The jail renovation and related construction is expected to cost between $850,000 to $1 million, Mawby said. The project is being done with the South Jersey Economic Development District. Bids may be sought in the fall. The project could start in December. Mawby noted the jail roof caved in during the summer and the county had to spend $17,000 in emergency funds to clean it up.

The 1840 jail was designed by notable Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, who also worked on the U.S. Capitol building and dome in Washington, D.C. The jail was used for about a century, according to the historic register application. The Atlantic County Sheriff's Office website said it stopped being used in 1932 when another jail opened. The old building was used for vocational training and, briefly in the 1970s, for document storage.

Future construction phases include a new heating and cooling system, renovating the interior offices for the county board of freeholders, fixing the complex's basement for records, relocating the records and moving the emergency generator. The county freeholders will move to Mays Landing from the Stillwater Building in Northfield once the courtroom in the complex is renovated, Mawby said. The Atlantic County government complex currently has offices for the Atlantic County Clerk, Atlantic County Surrogate, Board of Taxation, Board of Elections and the Atlantic County Improvement Authority. It was uncertain how much the rest of the construction would cost, and the work would be contingent on funding, Mawby said.

The 1964 jail, which is currently used for records storage, is slated to be demolished once the new storage space is completed, Mawby said. He said the 1964 jail is in poor condition, the roof needs to be replaced and the building is not worth restoring.

It wasn't known what will happen to the old sheriff's house, which is next door to the 19th century jail and built in the Georgian revival style, according to the National Register of Historic Places application. It was last used as a home by the late sheriff Gerald Gormley. His son, former state Sen. Bill Gormley, R-Atlantic, grew up there, Mawby said. The building is structurally sound, and there has been talk about converting it into offices.

Ronald McArthur, chairman of the Hamilton Township Historic Preservation Commission, said he was delighted the turn-of-the-century jail will be restored and the 1960s jail would be demolished. "That will not be missed," he said of the "newer" jail. "I think it's an aesthetic monstrosity. It's not really historic, and there's not much to say for it. But the old jail being refurbished is an architectural gem."

Brian McCabe, a reference librarian who works in Mays Landing, was also pleased to hear the 19th century jail would be revitalized. He noted that several library patrons visit the Atlantic County library to do research on the building.

"I think it's a fine idea," McCabe said. "Clearly, it's got a lot of history to it. I know it would be difficult to tear something like that down. If they can put it to practical use, that will be great."

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