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Secrets of SLO: Old hoosegow still stands behind downtown shop

Shoe advertisement hides behind bars of San Luis Obispo's old jail behind Charles Shoes on Higuera Street.
Shoe advertisement hides behind bars of San Luis Obispo's old jail behind Charles Shoes on Higuera Street.

San Luis Obispo’s city hall was once located on Higuera Street where Charles Shoes is today.

The fire department was on the ground floor, and, embarrassingly, the building almost burned down in August 1938. The 61-year-old building’s bell tower was heavily damaged.

The city was amazingly frugal in that era. Underrated or worn-out hoses burst when the firefighters tried to put water on the third-floor fire.

One of the other frugalities: The firefighters were responsible for feeding inmates of the jail, located behind city hall.

By the 1980s the old city hall was long demolished, and the old jail had been replaced twice, but the hoosegow was still hiding in an alley off Marsh Street.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “hoosegow” is an Americanization of the Spanish “juzgado,” from Latin “judicatum,” “something judged.”

So if a soul is wayward, are the soles of their shoes, too?

The writer of the following story did not have spellcheck to blame for the word confusion, though the word may have been mistakenly changed somewhere in the typesetting process.

Telegram-Tribune reporter Donna Sanks wrote about the old city jail August 15, 1981:

City seeks tales about old SLO jail

Jailers, drunkards and wayward soles come forward.

A San Luis Obispo City official is looking for you.

Assistant City Planner Jeff Hook is searching for information about the old city jail, built in 1915 or 1916 and abandoned some time in the 1930s.

The four-cell jail, complete with bars on the windows, has been hiding out behind Charles Shoes at 867 Higuera St., where the old city hall once stood.

Hook’s harried search for the history of the old concrete building began a few weeks ago, after shoe store owner Kenneth Porche told the city he wanted to demolish it to make room for a store expansion.

A city commission will decide Monday what will happen to the relic.

So far, Hook has uncovered the original construction plan and odds and ends of history about the city’s original hoosegow.

Now he’s looking for people who were in it. “I think it would be fascinating to hear the anecdotes of things that happened while it was operating,” he said.

Most of the questions about construction of the building are answered by the blueprint showing three ordinary cells with a window each, and a “dark cell,” with only a solitary air vent to connect a prisoner with the outside.

Each of the windowed cells had “foul air vents” clearly marked on the construction plan and still visible from the outside of the jail.

“I don’t know if that was to let foul air in or out,” Hook joked.

A sink, toilet and shower was shared by the inmates, who had to ask permission to leave their cells in order to use them. Built by Allinson & Cole Construction Company of San Francisco, the pokey still has its rusty metal door and tell-tale signs of latches that probably held metal shutters on the windows.

The building’s 8- and 10-inch-thick reinforced concrete walls would make it difficult and expensive to move.

“It was constructed to never come down. It’s the strongest building in town,” Hook said.

But Ken Porche Jr., manager of the shoe store, said he hopes the city goes to the expense of carting off the building.

We need the space in the back of the store. As it is right now, it (the jail) doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said.

The building is accessible only from Marsh Street and unrecognizable as the jail from the street side.

“We could have torn the thing down, and nobody would have known. We wanted to get it out in the open so someone could do something about it,” said the young Porche.

The shoe store owner followed city regulations when he notified the city that he intended to knock it down.

The Architectural Review Commission held up approval of demolition until Hook could find out the history of the jail.

Members of the county historical society are scratching around to find out what members know about the building.

If commissioners decide the building is significant, Porche will be required to submit plans for the structure that will go in its place.

The commission then weighs the loss of the old structure against the benefits of the new to determine whether the demolition can take place. The commission will meet at 4 p.m. Monday to decide whether to stay demolition.

• • •

An August 18, 1981, story said the ARC agreed to demolition, saying what happened at the site was culturally significant but the building was not.

An 82-year-old San Luis Obispo woman said she had walked by the jail on the way to high school in 1916 and said she was harangued by the inmates and that the facility “smelled pretty bad.” “She said she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to save it,” Hook told the commission. Commissioner Thaine H. Hahlbeck agreed. “I’ve never seen a dirtier, crummier looking building in my life.”

• • •

Though it is not a protected structure, the old jail still stands.

Estimates to demolish the solid concrete walls were prohibitively expensive so instead the jail became storage space. San Luis Obispo may have the most secure shoe storage room in the world.

Cyndi Ashley, manager of Charles Shoes and daughter of the owners, said that if staff aren’t too busy at the store, folks can ask to take a peek at the old jail.

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