Already a city Landmark winner, Housing Unit 1 has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places
Sunday, October 10, 2010
The design of a premier architect of the time, Housing Unit 1 is an ominous structure for all who look upon the gateway building to the Missouri State Penitentiary.
The limestone fortress was ahead of its time, housing women before any federal prison and later a therapeutic care program for voluntary inmates.
Housing Unit 1, also known as H-Hall and the Administration Building, on the Missouri State Penitentiary redevelopment site is a testament to the former state prison’s role.
Yet, as the new federal courthouse nears completion across Lafayette Street from the century-old, Gothic Revival-style structure, they create a book-end effect reflecting the history and future of government function, suggested preservation specialist Toni Prawl.
“Housing Unit 1 is the fundamental cornerstone for the entire historical quadrant,” said historian Mark Schreiber. “The dynamics of that structure from the turn of the 20th Century right there by the new federal courthouse makes a statement — the harmony and relationship of architectural styles and periods and how those can fit together in a very impactful manner.”
With endless potential for the site as streets are improved, developers recruited and proposals for a Museum District under way, Housing Unit 1 was named a city Landmark — the third component on the prison site with that designation.
Chris Koenig, who has drafted a nomination for the entire site to the National Register of Historic Places, said Housing Unit 1 was different from any other building up to that point because the others had been influenced by the eastern penitentiary styles.
“For this, they wanted a dominant, civic structure,” Koenig interpreted. “It was a sign of the times.”
Prawl added that would explain why they used such a well-known architect like Edmond Eckel. The St. Joseph architect was a French immigrant with classical training, unique for this area at that time.
Studying Eckel’s work for her doctoral dissertation, Prawl theorized that the building was constructed in phases, as the wings appear to be added after the main administrative and female housing section, which likely was completed by 1905.
The Gothic Revival characteristics, including gargoyles, coincide with the massive scale and imposing figure the gateway to the penitentiary was expected to hold, Prawl said.
The original structure featured towers on the facade creating the fortress impression.
“It became the icon of the prison,” Koenig said. “This was Missouri bragging rights but also a warning if you break the law.”
The building, built from limestone quarried by inmates on site, reflects not only the history of the prison, but of the city, too, Prawl said.
The bust above the entrance is of Gov. Alexander Monroe Dockery. Other ornate features include a clock and the Missouri state seal. When it opened, it faced the second state Capitol.
“It’s an interesting building all around with so many functions,” Koenig said.
Up until the late 1920s, no federal prisons existed for women. But the MSP had a female unit since 1842, when Amelia Eddy became the first female prisoner.
When Housing Unit 1 opened, high-profile, federal prisoners including Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman were held there. Those women helped to capture the true nature of life inside the women’s prison unit through books and letters they later wrote.
Mattie Howard, an author and self-proclaimed evangelist, confirmed their earlier accounts in her book “The Pathway of Mattie Howard.”
Conditions were horrific.
The muslin dresses were designed to be coarse and uncomfortable. The matrons could be kind, but others seemed to enjoy making the inmates miserable. Medical conditions were deplorable.
No showers were in the women’s unit. The areas were not clean, and the women used chicken wire to keep rodents out of their cells. Two blind cells were used for confinement. Narrow and damp, lacking windows and venti- lation, time spent in the blind cell was not improved by the once-a-day meal of bread and water.
The stay was fatal for at least one woman, who gorged herself immediately after being released from the “blind cell.”
By 1926, the women were relocated to the Gen. James Minor Mansion, where today’s Lewis and Clark State Office Building now stands. By the 1960s, a separate women’s prison was opened in Tipton.
From its opening, the lower level served administrative needs. It was the sole reception and diagnostic unit for the state until the 1980s. Every prisoner in the state started serving their time there in quarantine.
“We never could turn anybody down,” said Schreiber, who also is a former deputy warden. “Sometimes it was so crowded when St. Louis and Kansas City inmates came in.”
Schreiber remembered when mattresses were laid along the walkways because there wasn’t enough room in the cells for all the recently processed inmates, even though an average stay there was less than 30 days before moving into general population.
It made for volatile situations at times.
During a 1930s remodel, a control center was installed in the lobby of Housing Unit 1. The Works Progress Administration corridors, where officers stood during the 1954 riots, are slated for demolition through city-acquired Community Development Block Grant funds.
By the end of the 20th century, Housing Unit 1 became home to the Intensive Therapeutic Community, a guided self-help program. The MSP was one of the first maximum security prisons to start such a program, Schreiber said.
“Just because a person is in prison, doesn’t mean he can’t improve himself,” Schreiber said.
That reflected a shift in philosophy from the early Auburn penal system days focusing on punishment to a more corrective approach, Schreiber said.
Although it is one of the most historically significant buildings on the prison redevelopment site, Housing Unit 1 has suffered from weather and time.
“There’s a real risk, if funding isn’t found to stabilize these buildings and maintain the integrity of the exterior envelope, they could reach a point of demolition by neglect,” Schreiber said.
“It needs a new roof, there’s water coming through the ceiling, sagging tiles and rotting timbers.
“Chipping paint is nothing; water damage is something.”
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