Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ohio State Reformatory

Ohio Historical Marker

Designed by architect Levi T. Scofield, The Ohio State Reformatory opened its doors in 1896 as a facility to rehabilitate young male offenders through hard work and education. A self-sufficient institution with its own power plant and working farm, the reformatory produced goods in its workshops for other state institutions and provided opportunities for inmates to learn trades. As social attitudes towards crime hardened in the mid-twentieth century, it became a maximum security facility. The six tier East Cell Block is the largest known structure of its kind. Considered substandard by the 1970's, The Ohio State Reformatory closed in 1990. It has served since as a setting for several major motion pictures. This Mansfield landmark was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

As I read the words on the plaque along the causeway leading up to the somber sandstone structure I thought back to last time I visited this place.  Every October a local group puts on a Halloween themed "Haunted Prison" show.  It was a blustery, cold and rainy night when a bunch of us took the tour.    

It's just my opinion but I thought the run-of-the-mill cheesy sound effects and obligatory costumed actors jumping out from the shadows to scare actually took away from the inherent creepiness and potential of this place.  I like to think I possess an active and colorful imagination.  Smoky torchlight, some rattling chains and an occasional anguished cry from deep in the bowels of this Gothic prison would have been enough to really get my skin crawling.

During the rest of the year the reformatory is open for tours and that's what brought me back to the grounds again.  A group of the RoadQueen's friends recently wanted to check the place out so we met up one Saturday a few weeks ago.  While we waited for the others to arrive we walked around the outside and took some pictures.  The old building is huge making it difficult to get all but parts into the camera's eye. 

The main structure was spared from demolition years ago when a new facility was built on the grounds to the west and north.  Work is slowly being done mostly by volunteers to restore years of exposure to the outside and preserve the internal decor of the administrative and other sections of the prison.

The formal dining room is the only room fully restored and furnished at this time.  Besides offices the central area contained living quarters for the warden, his family and other important staff.  Quite a stark difference from other residents of this house.

The tour leads on through the various offices and residential spaces.  Peeling paint, dusty woodwork and decorative floor tiles are all that remains.

Fortunately it was sunny that day and the natural light helped to illuminate the interior spaces for my camera.
Notice the beautiful stained glass panels at the top of the windows in this second floor room.

In time the tour route takes visitors from the administrative area through a doorway and into a cage which then opens up into an atrium known as the Gaurd Room.  The Guard Room was the central hub of the reformatory connecting the east and west cell blocks and the administrative section.  It was in this area that prisoners could meet with family once a month. 

Another small doorway through the bars leads to the cell blocks.  Decorative iron work is something I'm sure doesn't appear in any modern prison these days.

At the end of each level is a small room with the locking controls for all the cells on that level.  The roster can still be seen on the wall.

A few of the cells have been restored to what an inmate's home would have looked like during the last decades of the reformatory's operation.

The tour does allow visitors to climb to the top of the six level cell block.  While the bars prevent any chance of a fall the feeling of vertigo is still intense.

The cell blocks are laid out in two rows with the doors opening to the south on one side and the other row opening to the north.  The following shot shows maintenance catwalks extending the length of the block between the two rows of cells to provide access the plumbing and other utilities.

This spiral staircase winds all the way to the top of the cell block.  Closed today for safety reasons it was probably used for quick access by the guards when situations warranted.

At ground level the cells are larger.  Perhaps inmates convicted of lesser offenses or people of higher social standings were housed in these cells.

In a basement level known as "The Hole" are rows of solitary confinement cells. No windows and nothing but a solid rack mounted to the floor.  Bad behavior would land an inmate here where they would spend all but an hour a day.

Not much signage  is left but I did find a couple examples still visible.  Above each cell a number was hand lettered; A marking system of a bygone era for sure.

The showers

Above is the reformatory's chapel where Sunday church services were held for inmates.  A large elevator in the back of the room was used to move prisoners from the cell block area to attend services.  I'm sure that in the day this was a bright and cheerful space.

This area was last used as a library.

Here is an old aerial photo showing the complex as it was in the mid-twentieth century.

Click to enlarge.

As a regular law abiding Joe I don't give much thought to the idea of incarceration but spending a few hours in this collection of cages for men really slams home the reality of life for those who can't or have chosen not to conduct themselves to the standards of society.  It's sad that today we still have to maintain modern versions of this kind of institution. Unfortunately as long as evil sometimes lurks in the hearts of men it will continue to be a necessity of our society. 

Without a doubt one of Ohio's most interesting even if a bit depressing historical sites.

Additional information at the OSR wikipedia entry.


  1. Just think this is an excellent photo essay.

    They really built those things, didn't they? I hope that some people were helped to reform just a little bit by the majesty and inventiveness of the architecture!