After dodging prying eyes and climbing through the rubble of the Administration Building, the Key Room was the last protected space. For obvious reasons, this particular room held all of the keys to the facility and was the last safe zone until you entered the Yard. Cellblocks were located to the left and right behind the viewer. The sole guard tower and the remainder of the buildings were scattered in front of you. You suddenly realized you had entered a totally different world. The Penitentiary was like a city unto itself. Everything necessary to daily life was present. These images are from a mixture of early work not long after the Pen was closed. I’ve been editing close to 200 negatives to try and find the best items of interest. But there are so many! Early in my photographic career, I have to smile at my technique.
When I think of all the tourists visiting someplace like Alcatraz, I’m saddened by the fact that we never preserved even a portion of the old Pen. It had cellblocks three times the size of Alcatraz! They were amazing. When I first visited, you could see that the State was already removing lock mechanisms and barriers from everything. At least we didn’t have to worry about getting locked in. The existing gates still maintained an ominous feel. Over the next few years, we noticed more decay and weather damage. These cellblock views look rather pristine by comparison to the end of their existence.
The first time I entered the Pen the Guard gave two warnings – don’t go into the towers, they were unstable and don’t go into the basement of any building because of rats. Needless to say, you might as well have highlighted those as obvious suggestions. When we explored the old dining hall and its attached kitchen, we DID attempt a basement trip. We only made a short distance from the stairs before spotting multiple eyes reflecting back our flashlight beams. One friend accompanying me screamed and ran the other direction. Upstairs, he asked if I had seen the size of the rat he caught in his flashlight. We never explored below ground again! It’s interesting to note that the dining hall tables all have attached chairs.
This was the tower I decided to visit. Luckily out of view of any prying eyes, this tower guarded the second portcullis that eventually led into the yard from the Main Gate. The cellblock is partially visible to the right. The only problem with the tower was dodging pigeons and other roosting birds – oh, and one badly placed wasp nest. Above, it was amazingly cramped. There was even a toilet! A couple of chairs and a gun cabinet were all the accessories available. There was lots of leftover items all throughout the site. But one cluster of order documents left behind gave me some insight into the world of the guards. Everyone doodles when they’re bored, but some of the messages on these papers were pretty disturbing. You really began to wonder who was the criminal.
Below is one of the views looking north along Neil Avenue toward the railroad tracks. The neighborhood of Victorian Village is just on the other side. Apartments and businesses now line this view. It’s amazing to consider what had existed prior to the Yuppie entertainment and lifestyle complex currently there. If only ghosts were real!
This is the notorious East wall that fell onto Nationwide employees cars parked just on the other side. It was rather fortunate because Nationwide was searching for a reason to demolish the Pen in order to create new development for their company. I’m sure their employees were well compensated for this annoyance. Nationwide also had an earlier reputation for demolishing the old Union Train Station before Preservationists could get their hands on the historical building. We now have hotels and a convention center where it stood and the only remaining chunk, a beautiful arch, sits in the middle of the vestiges of the Old Penitentiary yard. This wall collapse was the beginning of the end for the Penitentiary.
Even some of the more common areas of the Penitentiary had an otherworldly feeling in the dim light. There were some rooms where the walls were actually slumping to the floor as the plaster decayed and fell. Around every corner was an amazing find. For a photographer, each scene was an immediate still life waiting to be captured. Hours were spent wandering around. But you always kept your senses. There were rumors of kids getting arrested for trespass and vagrants roaming the site. Other than rats, rabbits and various birds, we toured without incident. Still, you always had a feeling you were being watched.
And there were always grounding moments. Whenever you felt excited about the terrific images being captured, you’d run into something sobering. While exploring one mechanical type building we walked into a completely black hole of a structure with two floors of cells. There was absolutely no light. This must have been their version of isolation. It was pretty creepy. And then while exploring near the front of the complex we stumbled on an electrical closet near the Honors Dorm with markings for the Execution Building or Death House. The reality of that moment was pinnacle. You knew you were in a space unknown to your innocence.