Browsing articles tagged with "Fort Lesley J McNair 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)

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