Sign Up For News And Updates

Your Name and E-mail
First Name:
Last Name:
E-mail Address:
Sign up for the following:

Your Address and Mobile
Mobile Phone:




National Register Nomination

Prepared by Katherine M. Jourdan, West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

The West Virginia State Penitentiary was built on the edge of Moundsville in 1866, where it soon became surrounded by the town. The twenty-four foot stone walls created an impression of a stone Gothic fortress with the crenellated facade, and towers. After serving the state for 129 years, the penitentiary was closed in 1995, when a new facility was constructed in Mount Olive, Fayette County.

The penitentiary complex covers 19 acres, with the main facade being three blocks in length. The stone walls for this facade stretch from 8th Street to 11th Street between Jefferson and Washington Avenues, with the grounds for the Warden's House and Administration Office being between 11th and 12th Streets . At one time the prison housed over 2,000 inmates, and had both men and women until 1947, when a women's facility was built in Pence Springs, West Virginia.

The prison is a rectangular walled complex with the west facade housing the inmates, the Administration Office, and visitor's reception areas. The north and south wagon gates are also part of this walled enclosure with the northern section being the original 1866-75 complex, and the southern portion being the 1929-39 addition. Inside the wall are several noncontributing buildings such as the Dining Hall, Chapel, Mail/Laundry, Old Man's Colony and the Prison Industry building. Outside the wall are the Boiler House, Shed, Central Receiving, and the contributing Garage, Warden's House and the Department of Control building.

The architectural style chosen for the building was Gothic Revival, with a crenellated edge, heavy stone construction, and battlements. The stone for the construction of the building was quarried from the Cameron and Rosbey's Rock area in Marshall County, as well as 4th Street in Moundsville, Big Grave Creek, and the town of Hundred, in Wetzel County. The south cell building was completed first by 1868. The foundation for the outer wall, the Wardens Residence/Administration Building, and north cell building were begun in 1869, and were completed by 1876. The north cell building was used as a kitchen, dining room and chapel, until cells were added in the 1890s.

The early sandstone outer wall formed a rectangle enclosing the north recreation yard. The original wall along present day Jefferson Avenue is approximately 826 feet and formed the west wall, or formal front entrance, with attached buttresses diving multilight window areas. The east side had the round Guard Towers #2, 3, 4, 5, which have access doors on the exterior of the prison walls at ground level. The walls were built by convict labor on foundations extending six feet below the ground, and six feet wide at the bottom. The walls stand 24 feet high, tapering to 18 inches thick at the top with a 30 inch wide cap. The walls are a dressed stone on the west front outside facade but the three other sides and the interior walls of the recreation yard are a random course ashlar.

Located in the north wall is the North Wagon Gate, a narrow two story building which may have temporarily housed both men and women prisoners at one time. The wooden trap doors on the second floor may also have been the scene of several early hangings. The building has a round arch gate with multilight transom on the street side, and the second floor has a gable end and chimney with crenellation. The interior is rusticated dressed stone with three windows inset on each side. Wooden steps lead to the second floor, and the third floor Guard Tower #1. This small room has a gable roof, two 1/1 windows to each side, sink and toilet, and a "crows nest: or balcony overlooking the yard. The second floor has brick interior walls with two 6/6 wide windows and two 1/1 windows on the ends, with dressed stone surrounds. The floor and joists are wooden timbers.

The main entrance to the Wardens Residence and Administration Building was quite formal, and for many years had twin stone fish ponds, to either side of the front walk. These were changed in the 1970s, when the ponds were filled-in with dirt and used as flower beds. Entrance posts straddled the front walk which led to granite steps, and a covered porch with a red tile roof. There are two 18" planters, one to each side of the steps, which have a pebble stone surface. These planters are believed to have been made by the inmates. The porch, constructed in 1908 by the Wheeling architectural firm of Giesey & Faris, is supported with four piers having octagon posts and capitals with floral patterns forming volutes. On the porch three Tudor arches span the piers and turn to meet the engaged piers on the back wall. The main door is round arched with a pierced window design in top, and double doors. The roof edge of the porch is crenellated, and the second floor center window is a doorway to the porch roof. To each side of the porch are round four story towers with lancet 4/1 windows (with some being altered to 2/1 and metal grills on the first floor). Behind the porch is a four story 3 bay facade with 4-1-4 windows of 6/1 double-hung openings with stone surrounds, the center opening being a triple window of 6/1 with side 2/1 openings. Between the window pattern are pilasters with a stringcourse break at each floor level having a decorative leaf pattern. In the center is a stone pediment with the state seal in color and a pinnacle at the peak. A balustrade runs from a post on each side of the pediment to the end towers.

Just inside the main entrance on the first floor, is the room where prisoners first entered the building and were searched. A small bay opening in the hallway allowed the guard to see to operate the wheel which the prisoner then used to be escorted to his cell. This double circular cage, or wheel, was installed in 1894. There was a single entrance to the center cage, which then spun from the front of the hallway, to the rear hall. Such a wheel operation prevented prisoners from making a dash for freedom down the hall and out the main doors. The operating controls are similar to a trolley with electricity to run the motor and brake.

Also inside the main hall was a visitors room, and offices. The Board of Directors report from 1886 mentions that the wood floor on the first floor was in deplorable condition. The floor was soon altered to tile, much of which still remains. The tile is a beige octagonal pattern, which is joined in the corners by a small square brown tile, and is probably Minton. The central hall has a border tile design of red squares. The visitors room also has remnants of a mosaic tile floor, and fireplace mantel. In the rear of the hall is a metal post office window.

The second floor of the main entrance section housed the offices of the warden and others. The third and fourth floor were the warden's home with a open wood stairway. The woodwork is exceptional with 12 inch high baseboards, four panel doors with transoms, spandrels under the windows and side moulding. There are also stone and metal mantels in various rooms, and access to the round towers. In the rear overlooking the yard was crows nest for the warden. The rooms were later used as training rooms once the wardens house was built to the south of the penitentiary.

The penitentiary was enlarged a second time in 1929-1939, using the south wall as a beginning point to create a second rectangular yard to the south. On the west facade of the building a new entrance was constructed near this division point of the two recreation yards. The facade then flows to the south approximately 470 feet in a 5 - 7 - 7 - 5 pattern of attached buttresses flanking glass block windows. The South Wagon Gate, built into the south wall, is a two-story stone building with a round arch door with multilight transom, and voussoir with keystone. The metal door has a small door cut into it for access. The second floor has two multilight windows and center door with crows nest overlooking the south recreation yard as Guard Tower 6. There are dressed stone surrounds for the window openings, stepped roof edge, and multilight side windows, with flat stone block voussoirs. The arched doors were originally wood for both wagon gates, but were replaced when they deteriorated with metal doors. The Wagon Gates were the entrances for the wagons and later semi-trucks bringing supplies to the prison. Each gate was long enough for a truck to pull-in, both gates were then closed, the vehicle searched, and the trucks were then allowed access to the yards, and kitchen.

The 1929-39 pedestrian entrance on Jefferson Avenue has seven bays with smaller multilight paired openings, broken by stone spandrel with dentils under the second floor windows. Under the third floor windows are incised lines with the center panel having a star. The towers flanking the entrance are angled on three sides. Steps lead up to the double door entrance, which has multilight transom and sidelights, with low walls beside the steps being the location of the following incised panels which are in a deteriorated condition. On south wall the inscription reads: "ANNEX/CONSTRUCTION BEGAN 1929/COMPLETED 1939/CECIL H. UNDERWOOD, GOVERNOR/HAROLD E. NEELEY, COMMISSIONER". On the north wall: "D. E. ADAMS, WARDEN/A.V. DODRILL, JR., DEPUTY WARDEN/ W ? DOTY, ASST DEPUTY WARDEN/ ? DIRECTOR, BUSINESS MGR./ ??M DIST SUPT". A small guard house was placed along the walkway in 1982, constructed of brick and wood, with windows and gable asphalt roof. A low roofed covered walkway was constructed in 1987-88, with metal poles supporting a rolled asphalt roof. This walkway also covers the guard house.

The west wall of the prison is where all the inmates resided, as well as offices, and dining facilities. The other three side walls have no buildings as post of the construction except for the guard towers, an "Ammo Room" on the east side held guns, etc., and wagon gates. The inmate housing has been altered over the years to try and comply with Federal standards and dates to 1959. The individual cells are 5 feet by 7 feet, with 7 foot ceilings. Each cell has a metal bed suspended from the side wall, a few having double bunks (inmates began having individual cells in the 1960s), a toilet and sink. Some cells were later altered with a one piece metal sink and toilet. In the south section were two cell blocks of four tiers with 20 cells each, plus an honor hall with one tier of 20 cells. The tiers are accessible by metal stairs and between the two blocks is a tower which has controls for the cell doors. The tiers are constructed of reinforced steel and concrete. Each block has a shower area with glazed hollow tile blocks and three shower heads. There are some fans but the cell blocks were not air conditioned. The heating units date from 1988, and the fire doors from 1987. On the second floor over the honor hall is a gymnasium, which has hardwood floors marked for basketball.

The maximum security area, is to the north of the main entrance, and has four tiers with 20 cells on the lower two tiers and 10 cells on the upper two tiers. These tow upper tiers were constructed to house inmates who by law needed less time outside, if they had bigger cells. This set-up allowed men to eat in their cells, and have all their physical needs met, without leaving the cell. The other inmates might have 23 hours in their cell with one hour for recreation time. The maximum security area has a place on the first floor with picnic style tables surrounded by wire fencing. There are also gun aisles opposite the tiers which also have wire fencing. The cells on the lower tiers are also 5 by 7 feet, with crutch keys used to lock the doors. The walls are steel with concrete floor on the lower level and steel floors on the upper tiers. The doors are small and narrow with bars covered by mesh.

The original kitchen and dining areas are basically open areas now, and the state shop was converted to a visiting area. The law library has been altered with modern shelving and carpet. Outside of the new dining hall, and OMC, or Old Man Colony, the library was the only air conditioned general area for the prisoners to use.

The recreation yards were for the use of the prisoners and contained recreation facilities such as baseball fields, and basketball courts, but also had a formal garden area opposite the administration offices. The maximum security area in the north recreation yard has an enclosed paved area with wire fencing topped by razor barb, with one side having metal walls. The south recreation yard has a Protected Custody yard (PC or "Rat Row") near the south wagon gate. There have also been small concrete block structures added to the inside wall for outside restrooms, snacks, and inmate exchanges. The former Captain's Office was made into a tv repair shop in 1986.

Over the years various buildings have been added to the penitentiary complex, a few being substantial two story brick structures. Some of these buildings subsequently have been removed when their use was discontinued. One such building was the Death House, a separate building used exclusively for the executions by hanging or electrocution. Once located in the north recreation yard near the North Wagon Gate, it was removed c. 1965, when prison inmates asked that it be removed since the death penalty was revoked by state law. Other buildings once located in the north recreation yard were used to produce prison products of tobacco, brooms, and clothes. There were two hospital buildings; dining hall with chapel and library; Female Department, and separate dining hall, and shirt shop. A water tower also once stood near Tower 4.

In the 1970s and 80s several buildings were constructed within the walls of the recreation yards. In the North Recreation Yard are the following buildings:

MAIL/LAUNDRY - c. 1973, noncontributing, concrete block, gable asphalt roof, ribbon of four horizontal windows in high wall. Building divided for two separate uses by center interior wall.

PRISON INDUSTRIES - c. 1975, noncontributing, extremely large building of standing vertical seam metal walls, metal roof.

OLD MAN'S COLONY (OMC) - former Visiting Room - c. 1984-85, noncontributing standing seam metal building, used for living quarters for men 55 or older, with good behavior.

DINING HALL - 1986-87 noncontributing, exterior brick walls with concrete foundation. Building angles into yard, has kitchen facilities as well.

The South Recreation Yard has the following building:

CHAPEL - c. 1975, noncontributing, standing seamed metal building, metal roof, donated by pastors association.

Outside the exterior walls of the penitentiary there are four additional buildings to east of the walled south recreation yard:

GARAGE - c. 1945, Contributing1-2 stories, with center two story and side one story wings, 7 bays with 5 garage doors, rusticated stone with voussoirs and keystones, two small doors with transoms. Second floor with three 20 light windows and awning openings. Castellated along roof edge, corner towers similar to prison architecture, 6 bays on sides with multilight windows, roof has rubber membrane.

BOILER HOUSE - 1975, non-contributing 1 story, vertical seamed metal siding, metal roof, garage door, small entrance door.

CENTRAL RECEIVING & GENERAL MAINTENANCE - c. 1970s, noncontributing one story, concrete block gable metal and asphalt roof, former Industries Warehouse.

SHED - 1970s, noncontributing small shed building for storage, concrete block, shed asphalt roof.

To the southeast of the penitentiary are two buildings which despite being slightly less than 50 years of age are contributing in architectural style to the complex. The buildings were designed to blend with the Gothic architecture of the penitentiary and are constructed of complimentary sandstone. The West Virginia Penitentiary Control and Administration Building was built c. 1950. This L-shaped building has rusticated stone walls with metal casement windows, and a low glass block wall. The building has three varying floor levels.

The southern portion of the penitentiary grounds has the Wardens House, built in 1951. A two story, 3 bay, T-shaped home with side porch on the east with triple wood posts and a side one bay garage on the west facade. The center gable portico entrance has pediment with trim moulding and dentils, and side fluted moulding. The front facade has a projecting angled bay with three windows, and metal sloped roof, and a gable dormer. The second floor has three bays, and the openings in the house are 6/6 double-hung windows with shutters. Gable asphalt roof with end chimney. In the rear, or south facade, of the house is a patio behind the garage. The yard has a stone barbecue, rock garden, and a circular fish pond within the front circular drive. The grounds once had a tennis court with a concrete wall but this has been removed.

The penitentiary, grounds, and outbuildings, provide a complete picture of the administration of the West Virginia Department of Control and the use of the facility from its beginnings in state history to the present day. The buildings are in excellent condition with few alterations from their original construction. While the penitentiary was enlarged, the 1929-39 addition, and the three buildings from 1945-50, blend with the original architectural scheme.

More from the National Register Nomination

Bibliography and footnotes

|WV Penitentiary Contents Page

Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and partially funded by Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

Services and Locations