When it opened, the state reformatory embodied a new way of dealing with criminals—rehabilitation rather than punishment for first-time offenders. The concept grew out of a nationwide prison-reform movement starting after the Civil War and peaking in the early twentieth century. Reformers argued that prisoners could become law-abiding citizens if given the chance to redeem themselves through hard work, education, and good behavior. Here at Wisconsin’s reformatory, prisoners attended classes to learn building trades, and they built the structures that ultimately housed them.
The massive, three-story administration building and the long, two-story North and South cell houses were designed by Ferry and Clas and built in phases between 1898 and 1922. Like many late-nineteenth-century prisons, these buildings are in the heavyset Richardsonian Romanesque mode, formally massed in dark gray, quarry-faced granite. Above the administration building’s entrance, a two-story semicircular arch, flanked by narrow sidelights, reaches toward a triangular parapet, creating a dramatic focal point. The cell blocks with rows of small, arched windows extend as long wings from the administration building.
Inside the administration building is a spectacular two-story rotunda with a grand double staircase and a richly colored terrazzo floor. Colossal columns support the coffered dome above, and the upper walls bear large murals, most of them painted by inmate E. Hubbard in 1924. Perhaps fantasizing about the freedom of open spaces, Hubbard depicted the Wisconsin Dells, the Rocky Mountains, and Mount McKinley.
The reformatory occupies a French colonial–era long lot, a long, narrow strip of land extending inland from the Fox River. The naturalistically landscaped grounds include a circular drive and curvilinear walks, shaded by large trees.