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West Virginia Penitentiary: National Register of Historic Places Nomination

Added to National Register of Historic Places, September 19, 1996

- Prepared by Katherine M. Jourdan, West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office
(view the original National Register nomination form

The West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, was the state's first penal institution, serving for 129 years until it closed in 1995. The period of significance for the penitentiary is from 1866 to 1939. The complex, or historic district, is being nominated under Criteria A for Government, and Criteria C for Architecture.

The state of West Virginia was formed during years of the Civil War, becoming the 35th state in 1863. At that time the county jails were sued for incarceration of prisoners. Beginning in 1864, the legislature directed Governor Arthur Boreman to have all persons convicted of felonies confined to the Ohio County jail in Wheeling.

An act of the legislature in 1866, directed the Board of Public Works to select a site of not less than 10 acres of land in or near Moundsville and to appoint a board of directors. They appropriated $50,000 to buy land and to begin construction. The same amount was also appropriated in 1867, and 1868, "to be applied to defraying the expenses that have and may arise from the building of the penitentiary at Moundsville." (1) There is the additional note in 1868 - "provided, that the board of directors shall expend said money, or so much thereof as may be necessary, on the finishing of the cell building now under construction, and in putting up the outer wall, so as to render the convicts secure." (2)

The site that was chosen in Moundsville is directly across from the Grave Creek Mound, now a National Historic Landmark. This is one of the largest conical type Adena mound structures, dating to roughly 250-150 BC. The mound was excavated in 1838, but the surrounding landscape including the penitentiary grounds have not had detailed archaeological testing.

The Gothic Revival style of architecture was popular in America from 1840-1880, for both domestic dwellings and public buildings. The style was chosen for the penitentiary and culminated in one of the best examples of the high style of Gothic Revival in West Virginia. The facade is fairly symmetrical with attached buttresses dividing the large window areas which were designed to bring light into each cell for a period of time each day. The sandstone facade has multiple battlements with circular or angled turrets and lancet windows. The roof edge has a running crenellation around the exterior walls making the penitentiary appear as a fortress. The facade of the Administration Building is also symmetrical with twin towers and battlements. The center entrance is topped by a false gable end with the state seal flanked by pinnacles. All the windows have stone surrounds and on the porch are wide low pointed arches, details seen in the Gothic Revival style. The result is a formidable facade, slightly intimidating, and stretches for three blocks with the sense of scale being very large.

The design concept of the penitentiary follows the Auburn Plan developed in Auburn, New York. Also called the "silent system", the concept dates to 1818, with a type of cell block where the cells are enclosed within a great containing building with cells back to back, and several tiers in height. This was also designated as the "inside cell" type of construction. Often made of steel, the cell blocks were large, airy, and sanitary, here inmates were able to work together during the day and were separated at night. This differed from the Pennsylvania System where prisoners were separated at all times. (3)

Details as to the original architects, and contractors is sketchy at this time, but reports do indicate that the plans for later building designs "adhered to the original design of the architect." (4) It is known that some of the stone was quarried from Marshall and Wetzel Counties, and that the walls were built by the labor of convicts and citizens. The early Warden and Board of Directors reports indicate that a wooden structure was used at first to house the prisoners, with a wooden stockade enclosing the yard. By 1868, the south cell building was constructed of stone with a slate roof. A year later the interior cells were completed and the outer wall and wardens residence foundations were under construction. Over the years other buildings were added, a report from September 1874 states that the penitentiary had its own "blacksmith and wagon shops, carpenter shop, brickyard, stoneyard, paint shop, shoe shop and tailor shop. Prisoners also worked in the kitchen, stables and wash house." (5) These buildings as well as later 1890s to 20s structures, such as the wash house, bakery, and hospital, were constructed inside the North Recreation Yard.

The north wing of the penitentiary was constructed by 1876, and used as a kitchen, dining room and chapel, before gradually having additional cells added in the 1890s. The Administration Building was also completed in 1876, and housed the residence of the warden on the fourth floor. For a number of years the female prisoners were housed on the third floor, with the second floor serving as a hospital, especially during a typhoid fever outbreak in 1889. Over time the Administration Building was improved with money for furniture, and carpets for the warden's residence and roof repairs; the wooden floor on the first floor entrance was changed to tile in 1886; stone steps were installed outside in 1888, an elevator was installed in 1894, as well as the revolving cage on the first floor. The current exterior porch to the Administration Building was designed by Wheeling architects Geisey & Faris in 1908.

Improvements were also made for the health of the prisoners with steam heat recommended by the prison doctor in the mid-1870s, and the small coal oil lamps used for the cells in 1898, being replaced by electricity in 1900. Although gas pipes were fitted in the building, no gas had yet been provided by 1882. When bricks were made for a new mess hall and hospital building in 1888 (that was not completed), the bricks were used instead for brick walks and roads inside the penitentiary yards, which was said to help with the health of the prisoners. The absence of the mud, the improved drainage, and increased cleanliness, improved the sanitary conditions of the yard. (6)

Some of the best descriptive records of the quality of life inside the prison and its operations, are the reports by the wardens to the governor in the 1920s. A report to Governor Ward M. Gore in 1926, describes the reception and later discharge of prisoners: "when a prisoner is received at the penitentiary he is at once enrolled and given a serial number. He is then required to bathe, given a hair cut and shave, and, if it is winter, dressed in prison clothes of cadet grey; if summer, a lighter material is used. After a prisoner has been received as stated above, he is given a thorough examination by the Prison Physicians, who carefully note all defects and keep a complete record of his examination. He is then measured by the Deputy Warden according to the Bertillon system, and a complete record is made showing nativity, color, parentage, religious antecedents, habits, domestic relations and previous prison records, if any. A photograph is also made and filed with the record. If a prisoner is able bodied, he is assigned to one of the factories operated within the prison, and is required to labor nine hours every day, except Saturday afternoon, Sundays and holidays. When a prisoner's term has expired and the day comes for his final discharge, he is given a complete new outfit of citizen's clothes of good material. Transportation is paid him to the county from which he was sent and cash allowance of $3.00 is given him, providing he does not have any money to his credit in the office. Prisoners are frequently discharged who have several hundred dollars to their credit. This represents the money made by "overtime" work in shops with prisoners being paid for all overtime at the same rate the State is paid for their labor. In this way many prisoners aid materially in supporting dependent families, and they are encouraged to do so."(7)

There are no buildings or structures standing today from the prison farm and coal mine the penitentiary operated about a mile southeast of the prison. Operation of these two facilities made the institution self-supporting. The prison had first farmed 10 acres next to the prison before moving to the large site. The 200+ acre farm had fresh produce for the kitchen, or the vegetables were canned for later use. The coal mine was begun in 1921, at a cost of $15,000. This included the cost of a shaft sunk in the mine 80 feet from the Sewickley Mine to connect with the Pittsburgh vein. The prison obtained its entire supply of coal from the mine saving the state thousands of dollars each year. All the prisoners who worked in the mine were "trusties" and stayed at the farm camp, later called Camp Fairchance. They earned seven and a half days a month in "good time allowance". In 1925, two new water wells were drilled that supplied the penitentiary, and in times of need could supply the city of Moundsville too. The side of the former farm and coal mine is the current Regional Jail facility in Moundsville.

The penitentiary housed approximately 80 women prisoners up until 1947, when a new facility was opened at Pence Springs, West Virginia. The Female Department was located by the 1920s in the northeast corner of the North Recreation Yard, and was a two-story building with separate dining room and kitchen. Approximately 50 women were employed in part of the shirt shop making collars and cuffs for the shirts made by the men prisoners. The other women were employed in domestic work within the department. A high wall enclosed this section from the main part of the prison.

Various educational and enriching programs have been part of the institution. The penitentiary had its own band which played in a bandstand located in the North Recreation Yard. The band played as the men went to and from lunch, and at evening concerts. A library was available to prisoners with over 5000 volumes. At one time those who could not read were required to attend night school, with other educational classes also being available. The Print Shop for many years published a magazine called WORK AND HOPE, for fellow prisoners. Many of the prison inmates were also interested in sports, especially baseball, and played local teams in Moundsville and the Ohio Valley area.

The local churches and clergy also had an interest in the spiritual life within the penitentiary. There was a large auditorium on the second floor of one building which served as a chapel for services. Photographs from the 1920s show semicircular seating around a stage that held a large pump organ. When this building was removed in the 1970s, the local Pastors Association donated the present chapel building in the South Recreation Yard.

Over the course of years 104 executions took place at the State Penitentiary. Death by hanging was used between 1899 and 1949, with the early hangings possibly taking place in the North Wagon Gate. A 1929 publication states that the Main Hospital Building was the location of the death cells (death row) and execution room. The State Legislature in 1949, decided electrocution was more humane. This method was used until 1965, when the legislature abolished the death penalty. At that time executions took place in a building called the Death House where there were four holding cells on the first floor. (This may have been a later name for the Hospital Building.) The second floor housed the Chaplains Office, Library, and the guards dining room. This building was removed by the 1970s.

A strip of ground along the south side of the penitentiary wall, intended for a street, was sued as a temporary burial site for prisoners. These early grave had to be moved about 1890, due to drainage problems with the penitentiary. At first five acres was purchased adjoining the prison, but in 1898, an Act of the Legislature made it mandatory for the Board to provide suitable grounds outside the city limits of Moundsville. At that time 10 acres was purchased approximately 3/4 of a mile from the prison on Tom's Run. The burial site is called Whitegate Cemetery today. The cemetery was used when bodies were unclaimed by relatives, and there are several plots from men who died by capital punishment, but most of the bodies experienced death by natural causes. In the 1920s and 30s, tuberculosis was a common ailment, in fact one of the prison hospital buildings had a ward with a large sun parlor for tuberculosis patients. From the 1930s -50s, almost all of the inmates who died in prison were buried outside Moundsville in Whitegate, whether because of the Great Depression, or lack of insurance. A floral fund was maintained in which the inmates each contributed one cent. The flowers accompanied the body to the place of internment. It was the wife of one of the Wardens in the 1950s who took an interest in improving the cemetery, and put up the white gate where the cemetery gets its name.

By the 1920s, the prison population had grown to over 2,000 with severe overcrowding, A new wing, later called "New Wall", was connected to the south side of the prison and was completed in 1939. This ten year construction project more than doubled the space, especially for housing prisoners. This new sandstone facade reflected the earlier Gothic Revival style chosen in the 19th century, and provided a sense of continuity to the complex. The former south wall of the prison became the dividing wall between the North and South Recreation yards. The new entrance allowed easy access for visitors to the visitation rooms. On the south side a second wagon gate reflected the architecture of the earlier North Wagon Gate. The cell blocks later underwent a renovation completed in 1959, to bring them up to Federal standards.

The warden and his family lived in the two upper floors of the Administration Building in a spacious apartment, with large rooms on the fourth floor. The fine woodwork is still evident on doors and baseboards, and the winding stairway. In 1951, a small house was built for the warden and his family on property just south of the penitentiary. A few years short of 50 years, the house is considered a contributing building to the historic district. The house was designed to complement the sandstone masonry facade of the penitentiary. The result is a Colonial Revival house, with a circular fish pond, a side bay windows. A curved drive to the house features a circular fish pond, while the rest of the yard included a patio, former tennis courts, and gardens.

A second building was built about 1950, as the West Virginia Penitentiary Control and Administration Building. This sandstone facade was also built to the south of the prison, and compliments the masonry construction, and architectural style of the penitentiary. This building would also be considered a contributing structure to the penitentiary's historic district.

The 1960s and 70s, saw the removal of many of the older brick buildings within the North Recreation Yard. The present concrete block and metal buildings inside the walls are noncontributing to the penitentiary's historic district.

Outside the walls along the east side of the property are several service buildings - Boiler House, Central Receiving and Shed, which are also noncontributing due to either age or construction. The stone Garage Building c. 1946, however, is contributing in style with its crenelated facade and corner pinnacles.

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is the oldest state penal institution. The building dates to only a few years after the state was formed during the Civil War, and was in continuous use until 1995. The architectural style is exceptional with the Gothic Revival details, crenellation, battlements and towers making it appear to be a fortress. The penitentiary well represents the State of West Virginia with regards to the Auburn Style of prison architecture and construction.

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