Jefferson City visitors bureau looks at tours of historic Missouri prison

Sunday, April 12, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- One hundred years before Alcatraz opened, the Missouri State Penitentiary was in operation. When it closed Sept. 15, 2004, it was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River.

For 170 years, citizens wondered what was behind "The Walls." And when they had their first opportunity to go inside, more than 20,000 toured in two days.

Since then, the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission has received frequent requests from those eager to see what history has left behind.

Some are interested in the famous people who spent time there, others are curious about what a prisoner's life might have been like and some might even be looking for the generations of architecture there.

"Interest has declined because we couldn't get people in," said Steve Picker, executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To appease the interest, the commission is working with the bureau to develop a "Hard Hat Tour."

That means the tour path may be rough, construction will be nearby -- requiring a hard hat -- and the stops might include places that a more polished tour might bypass.

The bureau hopes to have the planning completed and be ready for tours by May.

Mark Schreiber, author of "Somewhere In Time: 170 Years of Missouri Corrections," and Charlie Brzuchalski, senior project manager with the Office of Administration design and construction, are to help blend the past, present and future of the site into the tour content.

For example, the original site of the prison's wagon gate entrance is currently a gravel drive at the end of Lafayette Street used daily by trucks unloading materials for the new federal courthouse, which faces the 1905-built administration building.

With Schreiber, or his narration, as a guide, the two-hour tour would add life to these empty cells, echoing hallways, peeling ceilings and cracking walls.

As a corrections officer at the prison, Schreiber would offer firsthand accounts of inmate murders and attempted escapes. And as a historian, he will also tie national and community history into events and activities on site, such as the grand homes of Capitol Avenue that were built with profits made at factories with prison labor.

The prison site is targeted for redevelopment of up to 3 million square feet of hotels, retail, office and restaurant uses. Roads and infrastructure are being improved or laid. Two buildings, holding the state health lab and the Department of Natural Resources offices, already are in use.

Once inside the upper yard, visitors can see buildings from red brick Works Progress Administration-era, a modern chapel that is slated for demolition and stone quarried on site from the prison's earliest days.

Eventually, A-Hall may become a museum, but on the hard hat tour visitors would see it in the rough -- the old crowded cells, the dimly lit common area and even "The Dungeon."

The tour will meander through a couple of inmate housing buildings and in sight of several features, such as the mural of boxer Sonny Liston and an original-design guard tower. But the most popular part of the tour probably will be the gas chamber where 40 executions took place between 1937 and 1989.

"(Some of this) is a macabre part of our history, but it's still part of our history," Schreiber said.

The tours also would be an additional attraction the bureau can promote to potential visitors or already-scheduled conventions.

"Research shows there's a huge following of people who want to get in and see what's inside the walls," Picker said. "The more we can get people to Jefferson City, the more it will drive private business."

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