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Housing Unit 4 to once again be part of MSP tours

by Jeff Haldiman | January 16, 2022 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated January 18, 2022 at 4:38 a.m.
Ethan Weston/News Tribune Old prison cells line the walls floor to ceiling in housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.


The 2022 MSP tours resume March 2, and when they do, historic Housing Unit 4 will reclaim its spot as one, if not the most popular stop, for MSP tourists.

MSP opened in 1836 along the banks of the Missouri River. The prison, which was once named "The bloodiest 47 acres in America" by Time Magazine, housed inmates for 168 years. It was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi River until it was decommissioned in 2004.

The prison, which is still owned by the state, became a popular tourist site after its decommissioning. Tours of the prison, conducted by the Jefferson City Conventions and Visitors Bureau, help fund preservation of the historic buildings.

The history tours immersed visitors in the prison's past with stories about the inmates and staff who walked its halls. In some of the tours, former inmates or corrections officers related what life was like in the penitentiary as visitors walked the prison's catwalks and peeked into its cells seemingly frozen in time after their occupants left the building and moved to the Jefferson City Correctional Center in 2004.

The tours drew international attention, drawing more than 30,000 visitors a year, CVB officials have said.

However, the prison and its tours suffered a 1-2 punch in recent years when a tornado hit the site in 2019, damaging key historic portions of the penitentiary, such as Housing Unit 4.

Housing Unit 4's roof was severely damaged and it had to be removed.

As efforts were made to assess the extent of the damages and how Housing Unit 4 might be repaired, tours were limited to areas of the site that had not been damaged.

But then a second punch hit MSP: the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, tours of the site were suspended due to the pandemic. When they resumed, the scope of the tours was limited to areas that had not been damaged by the 2019 tornado.

The focus then turned how to make repairs to the damaged areas of the prison.

Alexandra Bobbitt, communications and film manager for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said: "Unfortunately, the building (Housing Unit 4) sat without a roof for two years and was exposed to the seasonal elements.

"Construction to preserve the building began in the summer of 2021 and was completed that fall," she said. "Between the exposure and construction, there was a large amount of debris that had accumulated."

After the roof was installed at a cost of $830,000, CVB staff and a handful of volunteers began the cleanup process.

"We quickly realized it was going to take more time and labor to clean all four levels of the building," Bobbitt said. "Our priorities shifted, and we focused on clearing the main floor and the dungeon cells.

"For the 2022 season, guests will only have access to those two areas of the building. The safety of our guests comes first, so they will not have access to the upper floors or catwalks until additional cleanup efforts have taken place. Ultimately, our goal is to have the building cleaned to allow guests to have full access in the future."

As repairs on the roof were nearing completion in November, another problem surfaced.

Workers noticed one of the keystones on one of the east side window had a crack. The keystone, which is the top piece of an archway that is designed to lock the rest of the stones in place, had a crack in it that was heading toward the roof, and it had moved.

Since the funding for the preservation project was a partnership between the state and the CVB, it wasn't a simple path to find a solution.

Since the building is overseen by the Office of Administration (OA), repair projects follow a process OA has lined out, which means going through a design phase to see the scope of a project before putting it out for bid.

Since the CVB board would fund at least a portion of the potential repairs through the net profits from its MSP tour ticket and merchandise sales, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) would have to be signed with OA.

The design phase was estimated to cost $15,000, but the MOU accounted for that amount going up to $20,000.

The MOU for the repairs hasn't been finalized yet, but the state and the CVB have agreed Housing Unit 4 can be used in the tours again.

"At this time the archway keystone has not been repaired, and it does not pose a safety hazard for our guests," Bobbitt said. "This keystone project will be readdressed in the future."

Now, the focus is on returning to a more normal MSP tour season.

"We haven't had a normal tour season in the past three years due to tornado damage, flooding and the ongoing pandemic," Bobbitt said. "Since Housing Unit 4 has been off the building rotation, we've had to adjust our tours to ensure guests were still getting their money's worth when they came to visit.

"With Housing Unit 4 returning this season, our tours will resume to how they were prior to the spring of 2019. We will offer an array of history, ghost and photography tours. Tours range from two to eight hours in length dependent on a guest's tour selection."

CVB board members said getting Housing Unit 4 back open was a top priority. Without that building in the tours, tickets sales were down, but were better than expected, Bobbitt said.

"Not knowing how 2021 was going to play out, we made a conservative visitation goal of 21,000 last January," Bobbitt said. "Once our tour season wrapped up in November, we were 74 people shy of recording 26,000 visitors.

"Considering we were down a building and felt the impact of the pandemic, we still surpassed our visitation goal by 23 percent and generated nearly $551,000 in tour revenue," she said.

And the impact of those tours go well beyond the MSP site, she said.

MSP visitors made a $2.8 million economic impact on the city last year whether they stayed at a hotel, ate at a restaurant or visited another attraction, she said.

And the attention and attraction goes well beyond the Capital City, she said. MSP was featured on the TV shows Destination Fear, Ghost Hunters and Access Hollywood, "which substantially increases the awareness of the property," she said.

With all of this in mind and upcoming marketing promotions, Bobbitt said they are extremely (but cautiously) optimistic about the 2022 season.

"As with any business, we experienced an overall decrease in visitation numbers in 2020 and 2021 as people were hesitant to travel," Bobbitt said. "The largest impacts have come from the loss of our school and leisure groups.

"Our goal is to surpass 2018's visitation rate of more than 30,000 visitors, which was the last uninterrupted season," she said. "We do believe we are on the rebound and hope to reach the 30,000 mark in 2022."

CORRECTION: This article was edited at 4:38 a.m. Jan. 18, 2022, to correct the starting date of the tours to March 2.

  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune One of many old prison cells which has been decorated for the return of tours at housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune Old phone booths sit in the main floor hallway of housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune A door to a solitary cell is ajar in the basement of housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune The old showers of the housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune The old showers of the housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune A recreation of a prison cell from the 1960s in housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune Old prison cells line the walls floor to ceiling in housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune A 1961 edition of “Look” magazine lays on a bunk bed in housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 
  photo  Ethan Weston/News Tribune Old boardgames lie on a bunk bed in housing unit 4 of the Missouri State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The unit is opening its doors for tours again on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 after damage from the 2019 tornado forced it to close. Preservation efforts have been underway in the building since.
 
 



 



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