Located at 3 South Congress Street in York, this handsome brick structure served as the York District’s jail for 23 years. Built in 1828, the former jail was converted into a private residence sometime between 1853 and 1855, after a father purchased it at public auction for his daughter. It is now known as the Wilson House in her honor, though it is not to be confused with another Wilson House in Rock Hill (located on Hull Street). After Mrs. Wilson’s tenure, the building again resumed its role as a jail, this time for members of the Ku Klux Klan. Of note is the building’s unusual elegance, especially compared to most other South Carolina prisons of the time, which largely resembled fortresses. The York County Courthouse stands directly across the street.
The jail was built in 1828 by Thomas B. Hoover and is thought to have been designed by South Carolina’s most famous architect, Robert Mills. The three-story building features Flemish bond brickwork – a pattern comprised of alternating bricks to show headers (ends) and stretchers (sides). The front facade is symmetrical with nine-over-nine windows with limestone sills and brick arches. The careful attention to symmetry is evident on the side of the building where three false windows were placed to maintain balance. A semi-circular fanlight adorns the front entrance.
The Yorkville Historical Society explains that the jail was mandated by the county’s charter and paid for by a tax. Along with the courthouse, it anchored the fledgling community and was built at its geographical center:
On March 12, 1785, four years after the British surrender at Yorktown, the county of York was chartered by the South Carolina legislature. It covered 685 square miles and was created when the old Camden District was divided into seven counties. Pennsylvania county names, brought south by the settlers, were given to three of the new counties: York, Chester, and Lancaster. County charters included a mandate to build a courthouse and jail, from which a village was expected to grow. A tax was created to cover the cost of “building the court houses, prisons, pillories, whipping posts and stocks.”
The charter legislation required that the courthouses and public buildings be placed at the most convenient location within each county. The geographic center of York County was determined, and it was found to be near a crossroads where seven or more paths (later roads) met. The crossroads was on land recently owned by brothers John and William Fergus. In court minutes of the discussions about where to locate the courthouse and jail, the justices called the central location “the crossroads at Fergus’s old place” and “Fergus Crossroads.” The county and city of York were founded in 1786 when the courthouse and jail were built at the crossroads, Liberty and Congress Streets were named, and a village plan was laid out with uniform lots along each street. Yorkville became its name.
As mentioned above, this intersection had once been home to a tavern owned by William and John Fergus. Called Fergus’ Crossroads, it marked the juncture where at least six wagon trails converged (sources differ on the exact number). Because the county was chartered in 1786 and this jail constructed in 1828, there was likely an earlier jail at or near this site. We do know that in April of 1786, three commissioners – John Currence, William Fergus, Sr., and Captain Alexander Love – were appointed to acquire two acres of land for the courthouse and jail. The commission stipulated that the jail be 16 feet wide and 22 feet long. If their instructions were heeded, then a former structure did exist. It may have been constructed of logs, which was the material used for the original courthouse. Both structures seem to have been replaced by brick ones in the 1820s. Like this jail, the second courthouse (no longer extant) was likely designed by Robert Mills.
In or about 1851, the commissioners petitioned to sell the structure so a new facility could be built further from the town’s center. William A. Latta purchased the property in 1853 for the sum of $9,710 and gave it to his daughter, Annie Latta Wilson, for whom the house is now named.
However, the building resumed its role as a jail following the Civil War, when Federal troops imprisoned members of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction. Nicknamed the “United States Hotel,” other criminals were incarcerated here as well, many of whom were involved in the illicit sale of spirits. Based on old newspaper articles, we know that prisoners were held here until at least the turn of the century. A new jail, located at 203 West Liberty, was constructed in 1920.
In the undated photograph above, taken by Kenneth Frederick Marsh, the jail-turned-residence-turned-jail bears a sign that reads, “W. G. Finley Law Office.” A 1922 edition of the Yorkville Inquirer features an advertisement for “Marion and Finley, Attorneys at Law” – a firm owned by partners J. A. Marion and W. G. Finley, located opposite the courthouse.
No major alterations to the exterior have been made except in the rear, where a small brick room was added on the first level, a screened porch added on the second, and a small window on the third. According to the National Register, in the early 1970s, the interior featured several offices on either side of the entrance hall and private apartments on the upper floors. Each room features a corner fireplace that corresponds to the four chimneys that protrude from the gabled roof. In recent years, the old jail housed a wedding chapel. As of 2018, the 4,128 square-foot structure was on the market for $250,000. The rear room and screen porch have both been removed.
Wilson House (Yorkville Jail) is listed in the National Register:
(Yorkville Jail; Old Jail) Built in 1828 by Thomas B. Hoover, the Yorkville Jail is attributed to Robert Mills. Characteristic of his style, the jail was built at a time when Mills was living in South Carolina and may have been one of his designs. The three-story building with its fine proportions and detailed brickwork is an exceptional example of small town prison architecture. Characteristic of Mills’ style are details of the building such as brick arches, a semi-circular fanlight, matching false window recesses, and an overall concern for proportion and symmetry. In 1853 William A. Latta purchased the property and gave it to his daughter Annie Latta Wilson. Converted into a residence, the building was known as the Wilson House. The brick building was again used as a jail during Reconstruction when Federal troops, stationed in York County for 16 years, imprisoned Ku Klux Klan members. The area was a stronghold of Klan activity. During these years, the old jail at York held many Klan members and was referred to locally as the “United States Hotel.” Listed in the National Register November 20, 1974.
Reflections on Wilson House (Yorkville Jail)
Contributor Carol Podmore shared the following in our Facebook group: “This building also held government offices off and on through the years, as space ran out in the county courthouse across the street. We applied for our marriage license thirty-nine years ago in an office to the left of the front door. I never knew it had been built as a jail!”