Written reports to incite action

Posted in: Architecture & Interiors


Photo courtesy of Historic Iowa State Penitentiary

The State of Iowa has initiated a tremendous service for the Historic Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) by supporting a Historic Structures Report (HSR). The 29 buildings on this 55-acre site have sat vacant since 2015 and need action through redevelopment. Mead & Hunt completed the HSR then assisted the Iowa Department of Corrections by taking a crucial next step; presenting the HSR findings to key government departments and officials at the Iowa Capitol. This presentation advocated for the release of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a development team to take on a comprehensive project of redeveloping ISP.

The HSR itself laid the foundations for redevelopment of ISP. The site and its 29 buildings were evaluated for their conditions and historic significance. To involve the local community, the design team conducted a series of public listening sessions with interested stakeholders both locally and regionally, inclusive of economic development and tourism professionals. Several ISP retirees were also interviewed about their hopes for reuse of the site. Economic and demographic drivers were evaluated, precedent ideas shared, developer incentives compiled, and ideas for reuse brainstormed. The resulting study identifies three redevelopment options, in order to show the potential and viability for the future of ISP.

Stacey presentingHistorical Context

The penitentiary has served the State of Iowa faithfully for 176 years. When it was closed in 2015, it was the longest-running penitentiary in US history. It was first built in the 1839, just one year after Iowa officially became a state, thus ISP is steeped in local history. The site was constructed in five major campaigns: the late 1800s-early 1900s, the 1900s-1920s, the 1920s-40s, the 1950s-60s, and most recently in the early 2000s. Cellhouse Buildings 18, 19, and 20 are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, noted both for their Auburn Penitentiary Complex architectural form and as reformatory system examples.

Since its closing in 2015, the property has sat vacant. Even the minimum maintenance required for the property is costing the state $1,000-$2,000 a day. The buildings are starting to deteriorate. The time for action is now.

Building a Path Forward

Historic buildingMead and Hunt conducted several open listening sessions during the HSR process to establish the expectations and the local and regional values for future development. ISP has been a strong cultural presence in Fort Madison for generations. It is therefore important for any redevelopment to retain the history and sanctity of space, honoring the family, friends, and neighbors who have lived, worked, and died within its walls. The future of this facility must reflect its strong cultural connection with the City—an exploitation of its past is unacceptable, as is total demolition.

The HSR identifies three multi-use development options for the potential future of ISP: a tourism plan, a residential plan, and an institutional plan.

  • The tourism plan could involve turning the original Cellhouse 17 into a historic museum, with a hotel/convention center in the neighboring buildings. Compatible retail and single-family housing would also be collocated around the perimeter of the site. This option creates a destination out of the site, increasing its viability. This complements the City’s immediate and long-term needs.
  • The residential plan would create a mix of single-family, duplex, and multi-family residences, as well as compatible retail, office, and recreation uses.
  • The institutional plan keeps the focus on the utilitarian aspect of the facility—let a jail be a jail. More recent state investments in ISP may be better suited for reuse as senior nursing homes, mental health services or industrial warehouses.

The Look ahead

tourism plan (002)ISP’s case as an abandoned penitentiary is not unique. There are precedents for turning jails into museums, restaurants, hotels, and homes. A jail in Lorton, Virginia was transformed into apartment units with very successful results. A facility in Boston has been transformed into a truly breathtaking hotel and nightclub. Numerous museums highlighting prison life have also been developed. The business of Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse development has the potential to create significant economic benefits. The state, region, and city surrounding ISP are hoping to capitalize on this opportunity.

The three development options the HSR identified are not set in stone; rather, they are three choices to provide discussion and understanding for viability and comparison. The final development plan will likely be some hybrid of all of the options, probably phased over a 10- to 20-year period.

The HSR shows the commitment of the Iowa Department of Corrections to evolve ISP into something that positively affects the community by initiating this report.  It provides a future development team much of the baseline information needed for preliminary considerations when pursuing projects.  Mead & Hunt was honored to help advocate for action at this historic site. Now is the time to find the right team with the appropriate experience, values, and financial backing to handle this large undertaking.


Stacey Keller, AIA, NCARB

About the Author

Stacey Keller, AIA, NCARB, is a graduate of the ACEC Wisconsin Leadership Program. She is a valued member of the Mead & Hunt Architecture & Interior Design team. She is recognized for her exceptional designs and attention to detail when coordinating complicated projects through to completion. Though she’ll take on any challenge, she loves to tackle renovations, historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects.

Read more posts by Stacey Keller, AIA, NCARB

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