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Baltimore Demolishes Maryland’s Oldest Penitentiary, Burying Its Nostalgia And Nightmares

As reported in a September 25, 2020 Baltimore Sun article, the city was now in the midst of a $27 million demolition tasked with clearing what was previously a 17-acre compound known as the Maryland Penitentiary and its adjacent Old City Jail.

Together, these properties reigned as one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring works of medieval architecture this side of “the pond.”

Architectural students from around the globe, those who study the gargoyles, turrets, spindles, and flying buttresses of Scottish castles, French cathedrals, or Turkish mosques, have praised the penitentiary’s chiseled blue-granite facade, its arched windows, and its Romanesque style. Few could imagine from the outside looking in that it simultaneously represented the best of society and the worst.

At its inception, the stateliness of the penitentiary brought a sense of pride to the city of Baltimore. Its beauty and design would qualify as a masterpiece to be revered had it served another purpose. Over time, the prison would become a symbol of the worst kind of oppression, replete with dungeons, degradation, and death for many.

Behind the 80-foot high walls and the thick granite, stories abound of violence, filth, and life sentences—many ending in prison-ordered hangings, others by suicide, which, according to records, occurred daily at the prison. Others suffered a slower, more excruciating death brought on by loneliness and despair.

The city’s preservationists petitioned Governor Larry Hogan to permit some of the structure to remain standing for purposes of posterity, including the famed stone tower that housed the prison administration, and also the ornate and stately warden’s residence. The great walls, the iron bars, the cavelike cells, even the prison’s infamous dungeon, all faced the wrath of the wrecking ball. According to the Sun, local spectators looked on as each wall crumbled, some in horror, others in celebration — many collecting the odd piece of stone masonry or a brick or a link from a leg iron shackle. German architect Klaus Philipsen, versed in the most intricate designs and architecture of European castles, commented, “You can’t punish the structure for what people did with it.”

Jerryn McCray, an American architect whose practice remained only a few blocks from the prison, described the structure as a house of misery. In contrast to Philipsen, McCray suggested, “Buildings are not sacred themselves. It’s the things that occur inside of buildings that make them sacred.”

As a compromise, state officials intend to convert the property into a mental health and addiction-treatment center for prisoners. Unfortunately, today, shiny-new, high-tech, impenetrable prisons continue to be built to replace the old structures. 


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