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Historic challenge: Save the penitentiary

One of the most significant architectural links with the Capital City’s evolution through nearly two centuries is in jeopardy and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has decided to take the lead.

The historic property at the intersection of Lafayette and State streets has sat vacant for nearly a decade.

At a special meeting Monday night, the commission agreed to invite the owner of the Missouri State Penitentiary to its October meeting.

At its September meeting, the commission will refine a set of questions and details it would like answered in regard to the caretaking and future of the site’s five most historic properties — Housing Unit 1, Housing Unit 3, Housing Unit 4, the gas chamber and the wall along Lafayette Street and Capitol Avenue.

The roofs and exterior of the housing units and the wall have come undone and weather quickly is eroding what remains. The gas chamber recently received some patches for weathering issues.

The commission along with the Historic City of Jefferson toured the historic buildings, seeing first-hand the rapid decay.

“After ten years of neglect, you can see it,” said Chairman Ed Meyers. “It reminded me of the History Channel’s ‘Life After People.’

“We seen and understand the problem. The question is how do we move ahead?”

Everyone agreed emergency funding was needed to save the buildings, which “will not last another five years,” according to prison historian and commissioner Mark Schreiber.

No state funding is allocated for the prison’s maintenance.

And any donations toward the repair and protection would go directly to the state General Revenue.

The most promising funding possibility was raised by former chairman Cathy Bordner.

The commission will explore how other state-owned, historic properties have been preserved by private organizations, primarily the Governor’s Mansion and the Missouri Mansion Preservation Inc.

The commission also may inquire of the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission’s status. That entity, formed by state statute, has not met since October 2012 and currently has at least four vacancies — three state appointees and the chairman’s seat.

After meeting with the Office of Administration, the commission expects to formalize an action plan with the end-goal of saving the historic buildings.

“As a commission, we need to get involved and make it known we are going to be involved,” said commissioner Bill Case. “We were appointed by the mayor for historical preservation.”

Other community efforts have been made to urge progress on the prison site.

This time, the specific historic quadrant, identified in the site’s Master Plan, has been singled out.

As a hint of optimism, Commissioner Art Langston noted that a few years ago, the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which leases part of the site to conduct tours, was not permitted to host any even related to the paranormal.

In recent years, that sentiment changed. And now, the site has experienced a boon in attendance for specialized tours and has received national media attention.

“There’s no blame; but there is a sense of urgency in the situation,” Langston said. “How can we offer positive solutions?”

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