Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why not to demolish the City Jail

After the noisy dust-up between Maryland legislators and Governor Hogan whether money should be spent on prison construction (Hogan) or on college construction (legislators) it was settled that the funds would go to Morgan and Coppin and not the penitentiary. Except: The money for the demolition of the 1859 prison structure is still in place. The destruction of the castle-like landmark seems ensured unless something is done about it.
Baltimore City jail (Photo: Creative Commons)

In the all too typical reflex of demolishing the building for what went wrong inside of it, the condition we now have is the worst outcome:

  • Inhumane incarceration conditions persist
  • the Baltimore prison complex remains a barrier between Midtown and East Baltimore
  • the oldest structure, one of the most historic buildings in Baltimore is slated to be demolished
  • no replacement is in sight

Imagine instead this outcome:

  • the historic granite burg would be preserved, find a new use, be opened to the public and made into one of Baltimore's most memorable buildings
  • The remaining prison complex occupying valuable central real estate would be relocated
  • the JFX would be lowered
  • Midtown and East Baltimore could grow seamlessly together 
    Baltimore City Jail (Photo: Washington Post)
Sprawling over 27 acres, the forbidding penal facility consumes a vast amount of acreage on potentially lucrative real estate. Surface parking, blight, bail bonds, and strip are the complex’s pitiful neighbors. It does not have to be this way forever.
Many cities have sensibly relocated their prisons away from their economic centers. Baltimore has yet to do so, but may have that opportunity.  Taking steps to move the penal complex from downtown was a pie in the sky idea until the state began publicly planning to sink over a half a billion dollars into demolishing and rebuilding the facility in place. Alternative locations exist nearby. (Comeback Cities, Jan 2014)
The prison buildings are owned and run by the State (The only such prison according to the Washington Post) and the entity that could do something about the demolition is the Maryland Historic Trust. For example, it has to ensure that no federal funds are used to impact historic resources under Section 106 of NEPA

For all those who can't imagine why anybody would care about the preservation of the City Jail take this quote from a preservation minded contractor friend of mine:
As a preservationist to the core, I am very upset by the Governor’s stated plans to raze the City Jail. If only for its magnificent pyramid like roof with antiquated observation catwalk and domed top, which is a piece of sculpture in Baltimore’s skyline, I cannot imagine demolishing such a splendid structure. 

Just try to separate the squalid use from the splendid structure for a moment and see the granite building as what it resembles, a medieval castle!

Even those who would rightly object that building use and building architecture cannot be considered in isolation must admit that many architecturally interesting prisons across the country found great adaptive re-use, close by, for example, the much smaller old Towson jail, now an office building. 

Even if you don't care about castles and historic preservation, ask yourself: Is this prison really located in the right spot? Does it fit into a long range vision of Baltimore?
Eastern Penitentiary, Philadelphia

One could imagine a new use that makes the incarceration itself the topic. The sad history of how in the misguided war on drugs the US became a global incarceration leader with deplorable prison conditions, racial profiling, record high recidivism rates and an all around misguided idea of "correction". 

This history and present condition cannot be properly overcome by denial or demolition. It can only be overcome by standing by history and learning from it. 

A great example of that can be found not far from Baltimore, on 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, in Philadelphia, just five blocks from the Museum of Art.

Klaus Philipsen FAIA
updated for reference to Comeback City article thanks to Jeff La Noue.

Baltimore SUN: The checkered history of Baltimore's jail
Comeback Cities: Move Baltimore's Prison
Baltimore Heritage: Jail demolition threatens landmark...

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