Former Ohio reformatory gets new life as historic building

From our perch on the metal-grated stairway, we can see the five stories of tiny, two-man cells — row upon row of metal bars stretching the length of the enormous East Wing. 

Peeling pastel paint covers every surface. With a little imagination, my mind’s eye could transform this cavernous scene into a giant impressionistic painting.

This is the Ohio State Reformatory, or OSR, in Mansfield, Ohio, about an hour’s drive southwest of Cleveland. The landscape around this stone fortress is bucolic with its small lake, sprawling lawns, wildflowers, stately trees and waddling ducklings. This castle-like building, which operated as a prison for nearly a century, is described by its architect as a melding of Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.

OSR received its first inmates in 1896 and shuttered its doors in 1990 when the state decided it needed a new facility. After closing, the reformatory was placed on death row and doomed for demolition until a few years later when the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society issued a reprieve.

“It was a blessing for the state,” explained Mary Cabrera Kennard, assistant operations director for the society. “This is a pretty solid structure and it would be a massive undertaking to tear it down.”

Now the 250,000-square-foot facility is on the National Register of Historic Places and has become a destination for those who love history, ghost hunting, weddings with a twist (“Glamour in the Slammer”) and film — especially “Shawshank Redemption.”

“Shawshank” was shot in 1993 when OSR was scheduled for razing, so film crews weren’t worried about putting a few holes in the walls or pounding camera mounts into the ceiling. Remnants of the shoot include the fake sewer tunnels through which character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) crawled to escape from Shawshank, an imaginary New England prison. The “sewage” in the tunnel, according to the audio tour, was created using chocolate syrup, cookies and sawdust.

The filming of “Air Force One” left its mark, too.

On the backside of the building, crews built a still-standing, fake stone gate made of paper and wood which helped transform OSR into a Russian prison. Huge posters of Lenin and Marx also grace some interior walls.

No fortress comes without its ghosts, and the audio tour tells about various noises, apparitions and strange-things-a-happenin’. There also are stories about the wardens and their families and various guards who lived in the central quarters of the reformatory where incredibly high ceilings, voluminous windows, artful woodwork and crown moldings hint at a comfortable lifestyle.

But this is prison, after all, and the enormity of the building is countered by the utter lack of livable space in the cells. There is a reason for the tiny compartments; in the early years, inmates spent little time in them. The reformatory was so named because the inmates, originally only males between 15 years and 30 years, were considered midlevel offenders and moldable. They spent most of the day working on the facility’s farm growing fruits and vegetables and milking cows, learning the printing trade, making furniture, clothing and shoes, or manning the power plant. Everyone went to church, and the classrooms were full. Some even stayed beyond their sentence to complete courses.

As the decades passed, though, the nature of the crimes changed and reformatory discipline “had to adapt to the nature of the prisoners,” Kennard said.

The population increased, too.

Originally designed for 1,800 inmates, there were sometimes more than 3,000 housed in the two wings.

“At the end, some prisoners were spending up to 22 hours a day in the cells,” Kennard added.

New minimum — and maximum — security prisons have been built just behind the original structure and visitors are warned not to take photos.

For information, visit ohiostatereformatory.org. Also check out the Shawshank Trail, a driving tour of area sites where the movie was filmed. Sadly, the big, solitary oak tree where Red (Morgan Freeman) looked for Andy’s stash of money was struck by lightning recently. The trunk now rests in front of the reformatory.

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