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Erica Luke, executive director of the South County History Center, looks over items that were donated to the center in this 2020 file photo.

KINGSTON, R.I. — The priceless archival collections of the South County History Center, housed in the old Washington County jail, are about to get some more much-needed attention.

The center is embarking on a 19-month project to improve the old jail’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to better protect its historical artifacts and documents.

More than $100,000 for the work comes from a National Endowment for the Humanities Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections grant.

The center joins the Chicago History Museum, Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York and just four other institutions receiving Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Implementation grants this year.

Erica Luke, the executive director, said the center is grateful for the award of the grant.

“This grant will enable the center to better preserve the historical collections already in our care and to accept new materials to better represent the diversity of our community,” Luke said.

In 2018 the center adopted a Space Usage Plan to ensure better care of its collection, expand storage capacity, increase accessibility and be financially and environmentally sustainable.

To date, Luke said, $140,000 has been invested in completed or planned projects. The work has been funded by donors including The 1772 Foundation, Champlin Foundation, Potter Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation and many other institutions and individuals.

“NEH’s generous grant represents the final step to full implementation of the plan, and this phase is focused on sustainably improving environmental conditions within our facility,” Luke said.

The project will improve the existing system’s climate control in non-collections spaces. For the area where collections storage has been consolidated, the center will install new HVAC equipment.

Securing the building envelope, installing insulation and other passive improvements will increase the HVAC system’s efficiency, according to the center. Additional repairs will protect the collection from pests.

“This project, which will be completed over a 19-month period, will greatly improve the security of the collection in a historically responsible and environmentally sustainable way,” Luke said.

The center, located on Route 138 across from the main entrance to URI, preserves, interprets and makes accessible archival, artifact and library research collections.

It maintains the largest collection of archival and library materials solely focused on the history of South County.

The archival collection is comprised of approximately 70,000 pieces of material, and the research library consists of an additional 1,000 volumes. Among the irreplaceable collections preserved at the center are the Kenneth T. Mars, Jr. Photograph Collection, which the center says is likely the largest collection of vernacular photographs created by a person of color in the United States. That collection was recently processed with NEH funding.

The NEH has awarded $28.4 million in grants for 239 humanities projects across the country.

The old jail building that’s about to receive the upgrades is steeped in history, according to the center.

Listed on the National Historic Register, it has been the home of the South County History Center (founded as the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society) since 1960. It’s served as a museum, library and archive for more than 50 years. According to the center, a jail building has stood there since 1792.

The first jail was a two-story wooden building with five cells upstairs for prisoners and four rooms downstairs where the jailer and his family lived. The town added a wooden cell block to the back of the building in the early 1800s.

The wood-framed jail had a variety of problems, including pest infestation, freezing temperatures in winter and unhygienic living conditions. Prisoners were able to escape easily.

The wooden cell block survived until 1858, when it was replaced with the existing two-story granite cell block. The front of the current building, which continued to serve as the residence for the jailer’s family, was added in 1861, replacing the 1792 wooden structure.  

The Washington County Jail operated until 1956, when the county jail system in Rhode Island dissolved. 

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