How did the changing architecture of jails reflect prison reform in St. Louis?
Recent events at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis beg the question: How did we get here? Over the millennia in Western civilization, the incarceration of suspects has evolved to the time they are incarcerated before any trial has lengthened. With the establishment of the United States based on the principles of the Enlightenment, the concept of “humane restriction” was further developed. The city of St. Louis has also seen a number of prisons over the past two centuries, reflecting the evolution of the criminal justice system in America and past actions and responses to perceived abuses.
One of the first major reforms in the St. Louis Justice Department was the prohibition of public humiliation, such as listing criminals in stocks accompanying the annexation of Louisiana Territory into the United States. But the first serious prison that we have a photo of soon followed. It was a rudimentary stone structure on the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, less than a block from the old courthouse. It was far from ideal.
The Niles National Register reported that nine prisoners escaped from prison on July 29, 1840. There were executions by hanging there until 1844, when another newspaper article announced that two murderers, John McDaniel and Josh Brown, were sentenced to death for murder. Problems with locks in the prison were so notorious that they hit New Orleans; The Times-Picayune reported that a burglar opened the lock on his cell and quietly walked out the front door. Unfortunately, the sequester came across a prison guard walking down the street to go to work. He recognized him and took him back to prison, where he was locked in an “iron safe”.
St. Louis grew rapidly in size and population, and the city felt the mounting pain. The Alton Telegraph reported:
“… in August There were 25 people in the St. Louis Jail for various offenses and 209 in the calaboose, and that number rose to 59 in the county jail and 323 in the calaboose in September. According to reports in the newspapers, all the bad guys in the United States are now gathered in St. Louis – almost every description of villainy is being perpetrated in this town on a daily basis. “
Even with the workhouse opening, after the poor and overcrowded conditions during the Civil War, it became clear that it was time for a bigger prison to accommodate a city that would reach 300,000 people by the 1870 census. The new municipal courthouse, designed by Thomas Waryng Walsh, became known as the Four Courts after the famous Dublin landmark. Walsh was the father of future brewery architect Robert and had designed various other famous landmarks in St. Louis, including the preliminary plans for St. Francis Xavier on the St. Louis University campus. At that time there were no architectural firms that “specialized” in prisons.
Walsh’s new design responded to the dark, dirty and cramped conditions of the past and should be open, airy and flooded with light. As was the trend in mental health buildings inspired by Thomas Story Kirkbride at the same time, the belief was that these natural elements had healing effects on “disobedient” and “maladjusted” members of society. The front of Four Courts was a dramatic Second Reich opera stage of a building that opened into the half rotunda of the prison cell blocks beyond. A rectangular wall encircled the curved structure and provided a training ground for prisoners awaiting trial in the courthouse, which was conveniently attached to the prison. The gallows were in the courtyard, too, and the sheriff would run the curtains. Invitees would receive a letter with a black border in the mail if they could witness the execution in the courtyard of the Four Courts Prison.
Chapter 21, Article III of the 1901 City Charter laid down the requirements for the prison inmate and his staff to serve in the prison of the four courts. The head jailer must be a US citizen. He was appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council and received $ 1,500 a year. The jailer would appoint a deputy who paid $ 1,000; an employee who paid $ 600; a chef who paid $ 600; an assistant cook who paid $ 480; and two second assistant cooks who paid $ 360 each. There were 24 guards, three of whom were supposed to be women, paying $ 720 each. All employees were paid monthly and it appears that the women were paid the same as the men. Children under the age of 15 were not held in prison.
Thirty years later, as the city of St. Louis expanded rapidly again, the four dishes were out of date. The mansard roofs were leaking and out of date according to the new architectural trends of the 20th century. By 1907, Isaac Taylor was tasked with building a new municipal court, which opened in 1910 and had a matching modern prison in the background. Again, prisoner placement followed the latest trends in American thought captured by the City Beautiful Movement. The central core of St. Louis underwent an urban renewal in the early 20th century, and the aging private homes and businesses built around the Civil War were demolished to make way for a new civic forum. The prison with its courthouse in front of this public space was part of the new image that the city wanted to project.
The St. Louis Engineers’ Club wrote a glowing review of the new prison behind Isaac Taylor’s courts in 1920. It was built between 1913 and 1914 for $ 300,000 and was encased in Bedford limestone to make it aesthetically pleasing. In the eyes of the article, it looked like a hospital or an office building, not a prison. The main entrance was on the 14th and the building was six stories. In the original construction, the fifth and sixth floors were not completed. The services such as the kitchen were in the basement and the administrative offices were on the first floor. The cells were then on the second to fourth floors. The walls of the cells were made of steel plates covered with poured concrete – Taylor had argued that this would be more hygienic than bare steel. There was a shower room for every twelve cells. The women were held on the incomplete fifth floor, with the women in the east wing being segregated by race. White men were held on the second and third floors so that two men were put in a cell as planned, and three black men were pushed into a cell on the fourth floor. This prison would have been in operation the longest – and likely hold the record – until 2002, when the new prison opened across from City Hall on Tucker Boulevard.
Perhaps that has been the trend all along for the past 200 years in St. Louis and America as a whole. In order to break away from the medieval justice they left behind in Europe, American judicial reformers desperately wanted to reform the one place no one wants to think about, a place where people remain locked up against their will. They have tried again and again to wrap these structures in beautiful architecture and hide the real purpose of the building. Oh, it looks like a French hotel, hospital, or office building. Look at the big windows! But at the end of the day a prison is a prison.