Preserving History: Tour of the Tennessee State Prison

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When you hear the word prison, your mind doesn’t necessarily imagine exquisite architecture. Prisons are places that automatically come with a dark or negative impression.

The Tennessee State Prison is a place that served it’s purpose in time for what it was designed for and also is a prime example of exquisite architecture. Built in 1898, the Tennessee State Prison (TSP) is an ambassador to 1890s architecture.

Recently, Historic Nashville, Inc. members had the distinguished honor to an exclusive tour of the beautiful prison. The tour was led by Tennessee Department of Corrections staff Torrey Grimes and Theresa Thomas. The prison is not open to the public and sits unoccupied and fighting the elements of decay.

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The prison opened in 1898 and operated until 1992. When it was built the prison was only supposed to house 800 prisoners. Upon the prison’s first arrivals when it opened, the prison had up to 1400. Almost double what it was suppose to hold. Before the newness of the prison could wear off, an escape from some of the inmates happened within the first couple of months. Prisoners took  TNT dynamite that was kept at the prison and blew a hole in the side of the prison.

IMG_5505 Side of the prison that was blown out from TNT.

Historic Nashville, Inc. members walked around the exterior of the building to see what remains of the historic prison today. Members were given pieces of historical information along each step of the way.

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When the prison closed in 1992, it was given up for free to the film community. Films such as The Green Mile, The Last Castle and Ernest Goes  to Jail were filmed on prison’s property. If you’ve watched The Green Mile, you may recall the little rat that was a companion to one of the inmates. We were told that the rat was not a current tenant of the prison but rather a trained one the film crew brought.

While walking around the exterior, the peeling of paint is all around. This is a result of a production company that painted the exterior for a film. The paint still shows today. The paint was not removed after filming and unfortunately it was not discovered until years later that “cheap” paint was used. This resulted in moisture getting trapped behind the paint and thus harming the bricks.

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The tour took us to the back side of the prison where the yard was and remains. The only interior portion of the prison members were able to go into were the cell blocks and the mess hall. My husband and I opted to view the inside of the cells first.

Standing in the entrance of the exterior exit of the cells was quite an experience. The cells climbed up three stories and each cell held two prisoners. The tour guides explained that even though the prison was built to house approximately 800 inmates, the population was over that. At one time, the prison had approximately 3,300 to 4,000 inmates. We were told to imagine how loud it would have been within the walls.

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Before we wandered into the mess hall, we peeked into other parts of the building. Below are a few pictures of what remained in an interior room. As you can see, a lonely ledger sits waiting on it’s owner to complete the tasks for the day.

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As we entered into the mess hall, the staff members continued giving us lots of history about the prison. Such as the mural that still  remains  proudly in the mess hall. It was painted by prisoners during their own time since the prison was a working farm and all prisoners had a job. They were supposed to defray the cost of their incarceration.

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IMG_5559 A jacket waiting on it’s owner to come back to claim it.

When the prison closed in 1992, there was a lot more entrance into the interior of the prison. However, asbestos has staked it’s claim and has caused it to be unsafe for anyone to enter without proper gear. Historic Nashville, Inc. members were very lucky to take the tour as this is normally reserved for senators and governors.

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The Tennessee State Prison’s future is currently unknown. Many ideas have been brought to the table but I believe we all can agree on one thing: to preserve it’s rich history. Just like Alcatraz in San Francisco, Calif., the Tennessee State Prison deserves to age with dignity and be on display for people to admire. If you’d like to learn more and perhaps learn how we can move into the direction of preserving this late 19th century landmark, go to the Tennessee State Prison Historical Society or the Save The Tennessee State Prison Facebook page. Grand landmarks like these deserve to thrive in preservation history.

For more information about becoming a Historic Nashville, Inc. member, please visit their membership page.

 

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