Joliet prison could become housing, businesses

JOLIET The giant limestone building has been used as a set for television shows and movies. But now it may be getting a new life. The Joliet City Council has approved a deal that will give partial control of the old prison to a Chicago developer.

Joliet Jake and his brother, Elwood, put the prison on the pop culture map. The reality of the place is a lot less exciting.

"It is truly oppressing. You feel when you walk in like you're in prison and it was built that way," said Tom Thanas, city manager.

Thanas is one of the people who said he thinks this dreary place has a bright future. The last inmates were transferred out of the century-old Joliet lock-up in early 2002. Since then, it's been used for a few television and movie shoots. Now the city is working with a private developer to acquire the property from the state and give the place a new lease on life.

"A big part of our effort is to put retail in the open space across the street. But behind the walls, we've got some great recreational opportunities. There's still a ball field in there if you really want to feel like you 'jack one over the wall,'" Thanas said.

This jail was designed by the same architect who built the old Chicago Water Tower on Michigan Avenue. For that reason, any redevelopment would require some of the prison's most famous features be left intact.

"Well, definitely the barbed wire would go away, no need for barbed wire. But the guard towers might stay. The walls are really unique and nice. It creates a really nice environment," said Steven Bandolik, Platinum Realty Partners.

Developers say they see the possibility of a hotel, museum, even some type of residential units inside the walls. Think they're crazy?

In Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood, a prison also built in the 1850s is now a luxury hotel, one that would no doubt turn away the slovenly likes of Jake and Elwood Blues.

The process of transferring ownership of the prison from the state to the city of Joliet for development may take up to a year.

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