Browsing articles tagged with "Federal Penitentiary Archives - Historic Fort Lesley J. McNair"

Brick, Brick, Wall and a Few Buildings Too! (Part 1)

By John Michael  //  Washington Arsenal  //  No Comments

The Capital City Needs A New Federal Penitentiary – Part 1

charles bulfinchWhen President John Quincy Adams tapped Charles Bulfinch, the architect from Boston, to design the first federal penitentiary on the northern acres of Greenleaf Point, who knew the role this structure would later play in the history of the United States – specifically in regard to the Lincoln assassination.   Bulfinch, as the 3rd Architect of the Capitol, had redesigned that building, incorporating a new central dome to it. He succeeded Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was the 2nd Architect of the Capitol and Stephen Hallet (a.k.a. Étienne Sulpice Hallet) who was Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant‘s draftsman and the 1st Architect of the Capitol.

It Began in Boston

Bulfinch made his name and reputation in New England, specifically in Massachusetts  and around Boston -designing several buildings. Among these facts were why in 1817 he was named as the Architect of the Capital. In addition to the work done on the Capitol, he designed a prison in Alexandria, Va. (1826) and also designed the Federal Penitentiary (1827-28), Washington DC.

An In-depth Penitentiary Study

To get a better perspective about a penitentiary design,  Bulfinch sought out a variety of prisons both existing  or those being built in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  Armed with that knowledge, he then prepared a report to the President that highlighted his actions and the conclusions and recommendations for the new penitentiary that would be built for the Capital City located at the northern end of Greenleaf Point.

bulfinch penitentiary report

Results  and Recommendations for the Penitentiary

charles bulfinch on penitentiary

Read a copy of the report bulfinch-report-to-congress

A Penitentiary Design

Based on his report and details in it, the new District of Columbia Penitentiary would be a four-story brick building with twenty cells on each floor or a total of one hundred sixty cells surrounded by a perimeter wall.  The front of the penitentiary would face north.  Within the courtyard would be a separate building – that’s where the kitchen, mess hall and the shoe factory would be.

bulfinch penitentiary sketch


penitentiary plan

What the Future Held

The penitentiary completed in 1827 and never filled to capacity and the shoe factory didn’t provide enough income to maintain the facility since the combination of types of prisoners along with the number wasn’t sufficient Yet less than four decades later, it would be the site of what would be the incarceration, trial, and hanging of four of the Lincoln assassination conspirators including Mary Surratt – the first woman hanged by the US  federal government.

washington federal penitentiary



Images of America - Fort Lesley J. McNair

Images of America – Fort Lesley J. McNair

An  Author Autographed copy of the book is available for purchase.  Buy the Book


Brick, Brick, Wall  – Part 2 –

After that fateful day – 07 JUL 1865  what happened Next?   (COMING SOON)


A 1972 Tour of Fort Lesley J McNair – Part II

By John Michael  //  Fort Lesley J McNair  //  No Comments



This short tour of Fort Lesley J McNair provides only a small glimpse of what many call “A most beautiful US Army Post”

Roosevelt Hall  – a design by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White – first contained the Army War College.  The first graduating class that did their work within this beautiful building was the Class of 1909-10.  It stands as a tribute to them and those who followed.   After World War II,  the Army War College moved to Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania (taking their statue of Frederick the Great there too!).  The National War College now is located in Roosevelt Hall providing instruction to members of all branches of the military and other US government agencies such as the Department of State.   One graduate from more recent times is Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens,


Roosevelt Hall from the Northwest

Roosevelt Hall from the Northwest

“TEMPOS” – temporary buildings, built / erected to meet a pressing need and among those needs were the need for additional quarters – there’s never enough space for housing.   These barracks, which were located on the east side of post, down the road  a bit from Roosevelt Hall, provided much needed housing.

"Tempo" - Temporary Barracks on the East side

“Tempo” – Temporary Barracks on the East side

What is in present day called Grant Hall, was in 1972, housing for married military officers.  The building is the last remnant of the federal penitentiary that once occupied many more of the acres – it was built before the US Civil War.  The notoriety of the penitentiary is that’s where the Lincoln assassination conspirators were incarcerated.  Their trial took place on the third floor of this building seen below.  The gallows where they were later hanged on 07 JUL 1865 were erected just to what would be the left side of the building.   Tennis courts now occupy the space where the gallows stood.

Site of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators Trial The Federal Penitentiary Building - later Grant Hall

Site of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators Trial – The Federal Penitentiary Building – later Grant Hall


The US Army has its share of talented people.  The branch that is one of the work horses of the US Army is the Corps of Engineers.  The Engineering School once occupied the barracks shown below.  It also is where the US Army Music School later trained the musicians for all the US Army regimental bands.


Inter American Defense College

Inter American Defense College


There are two other sets of photographs from this group which can be seen –  PART I   and PART III.


The book, Images of America – Fort Lesley J. McNair contains over two hundred historical photographs, images and illustrations which chronicle the two hundred plus years of history among the acres of this US Army Post.

The book “Images of America – Fort Lesley J McNair”  is “a walk down memory lane” as one reader called it after he turned the last page.  Go beyond

Images of America - Fort Lesley J. McNair

Images of America – Fort Lesley J. McNair

the website and read more of the history with your own copy – BUY THE BOOK offers the opportunity to get either a personalized & autographed copy from the author or purchase the book from one of the major resellers.












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