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Zillowing Out

A $369,000 Historic Home That’s Not Quite Right For Our Hallmark Fantasy

an overexposed rendering of a brick house with a big porch and two turrets
Illustration: Chris Thompson/Defector

I am going to get my Christmas tree this weekend. Normally I am not a Christmas Person, but this is not a normal year. I want to look at the lit-up tree in my tiny apartment and have a little smile. I want to buy a few shiny ornaments for it. I’m not able to go back to Texas for Christmas this year, so I’m missing my family quite a lot. I haven’t seen them since February, and I have no idea when I’ll see them again. I know you know this too, but let’s say it anyway: This sucks! I can’t even really call them because I get upset thinking about it! So whatever, I’m reverting back to my childhood. I am going to put up a goddamn tree and I am going to buy a garland and soon I will begin to watch the infinite, yet barely different, Hallmark movies my mom and my sister like because they have attractive and non-threatening couples who find happy endings. And you know what, we deserve to imagine a happy ending this year. 

Most of the Hallmark movies begin with an identical bit: A woman in her mid-20s lives in a big (usually East Coast) city. She thinks she’s happy, but really she is just over-worked. Her family lives in a small town, a town she swore she’d never, ever, see again. But now? Now there is some hitch! Maybe a parent has died, or the economy is in shambles, or a big chain store moved to town and is threatening to ruin her family’s generational bookstore! Our protagonist must go home for Christmas! She alone must save the day! 

Because I have been thoroughly indoctrinated into the Hallmark Cinematic Universe since I was a young child, I have many completely impractical ideas for how I could blow up my own life. When I am having a particularly rough time at work (for instance, when I decided to quit a blogging job I loved) or when I am sick of my apartment (like, say, choosing to stay in it for long enough for a whole baby to be conceived and born), I begin to imagine a Hallmark tale where I flee the city and move to a quaint little town and open (what else?) a bookstore with a little cafe. In my most grandiose daydreams, I open a little bed and breakfast where people come and chat with me and I direct them to the town’s small, but iconic tree lighting. 

It is the Hallmark Christmas movie alert for “bed and breakfast” that brought me to this week’s house and oh boy is it not for a Hallmark movie. 

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

At first, it seems perfect. Here is a big old brick house. It was apparently built in 1895. “This property offers a great location and endless possibilities for someone with a little imagination, such as a theme restaurant, boutique, delightful cafe, bed and breakfast, restaurant, Pub [sic], and so much more,” the description reads. Wow! Perfect? It’s in the middle of nowhere: Bedford, Pennsylvania. That sounds Hallmark-ish enough?

OK, OK. This could be good! It has a giant porch where we can drink our coffee with a knit sweater on and find a surprise mistletoe and get a little kiss-kiss. Right now there is a hand-weaving studio there, but the first few photos show us the bones of something we can work with. A bed that apparently is only for various types of yarn to sleep on? That’s fine. Sure there is another awful drop tile ceiling, but there are what look like original banisters on the stairs, wooden trim, original churchy windows, and the gorgeous red brick exterior that has not one but two turrets and, oh god. Things are taking a turn. 

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

First there is a room that looks a little forgotten. It is empty, but it has wooden rafters (pretty!) and a few exposed brick walls! Someone has been doing demolition work here, the concrete seems uneven and weird, but we could probably tile it or something to make it cute. Oh boy. The next image shows a very narrow hallway presumably in the same room and now there is some curious interior fencing to our left? Is that a cage, maybe? 

Oh, yikes! This is a JAIL?

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

How did I miss this? OK, this next corridor shows this is clearly a terrible jail! The dusty cell doors are casually swung open. The floors seem to have holes in them for … drainage? This is not the holiday happy vibe we were going for! The bunks in the cells look so small. I am a pretty small person and I imagine I wouldn’t be able to bend my knees and fit on the bed. Just like all jails, this one is inhumane! It is built to break people for no reason related to justice at all. There are also very strange drawings that get a lot of attention: one of a demon holding an automatic rifle and waving what looks like a half-shaded confederate flag, one of the Harley Davidson Motorcycles logo, one of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s race car, and one of a king cobra that is actually pretty good. Maybe this jail artist had encouraging parents?

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

In the middle of all these jail pictures, we are also shown what appears to be a small brick dome for a very hot fire because this also maybe was an iron works? Iron working is cool. Why couldn’t it have just stayed an iron working place? Why a jail? Maybe there are cool pictures of the iron fire?

No there are not. There are only more terrifying photos of the jail. What upsets me the most about this jail is the chain link surrounding the outside of the bars that makes it look like a tiny dugout fence. This is upsetting because there are already giant bars on the jail cell. The fencing is clearly to keep prisoners from being able to reach outside. It’s a mechanism to make guards and non-prisoners comfortable, to prioritize the feelings of the group in power over the comfort of the people in the cell. 

It gets worse. The property description tried to warn us, saying “If you look closely at the pictures you will see a fun after hours event that took place at the Jail.” And … you sure can.  Here are several middle aged women dressed up as prisoners. They are holding drinks. They are posing in the doorway of a jail cell. Where did they even get that old-timey prisoner outfit? They are holding giant key rings and laughing. In one, a woman is holding money which leads me to believe this is some kind of game where you have to “pay bail” to get your friend out of “jail.”

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

Though this seems like a modest party it reminds me of the episode of Silicon Valley where the soulless Erlich Bachman rents out the entire island of Alcatraz for some terrible party. Alcatraz is the only place I’ve ever gone into a prison cell and it freaked me out. Not in the “scared-straight” way, but in a deeply sad way. I was a child and became very upset because it seemed really mean to keep people in such small rooms. I remember that from the dining hall you could smell the chocolate of the Ghirardelli factory in San Francisco and that, to me, seemed especially cruel. It still upsets me to think about that. 

Everyone should be upset by jails. Most jails (and even this party) operate on cash bail, which mean that people who have been arrested even for minor crimes could suffer or die in jail simply because their dads aren’t rich enough to bail them out. It is an unfair, unjust system. According to the ledger in this jail (which you can also see for some reason in this Zillow listing) people may have been locked up here as recently as the 1980s. I really recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, because I am in no way qualified to talk about this topic. What am I qualified to say is that it is inappropriate and embarrassing to dress up like a prisoner, and it is completely inappropriate to add those photos to a public Zillow listing. If you are going to do something shameful, at least put it on Facebook!

(Screenshot: Zillow.com)

Zillow is supposed to be pure. It is supposed to be only houses. If there are photos with people in them, they should ideally be of someone taking a photo of a mirror. The spell is broken now. We have learned more about this building, and this town. We cannot have our Hallmark small town fantasy here! Could we theoretically rip out all those jail cells, split those beautiful brick walls into individual suites and give this old jail new life as a cute lil’ bed and breakfast that would restore the town’s soul and also find us a stray dog who is perfectly trained and an adorable boyfriend with a green sweater? Yes. Of course we could. We could string lights on the porch and enjoy a montage of the hard labor it took to haul those awful jail cell walls out! But we will not! We will take our fantasy to another small town where people do not have parties inside jails and dress up like inmates. Maybe, one day,  we can even find a home without drop ceilings.

The Bedford County Jail has been listed on Zillow for 684 days. If you buy this certainly haunted place, I will come stay, but you are NOT allowed to lock me up in the jail. Thank you so much.