Wisconsin Historical Society

Property Record


Architecture and History Inventory
200 S MADISON ST | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society
Other Name:Auto Tag Building - #0121
Contributing: Yes
Reference Number:15419
Location (Address):200 S MADISON ST
Unincorporated Community:
Quarter Section:
Quarter/Quarter Section:
Year Built:1845
Survey Date:1979
Historic Use:jail/correctional facility
Architectural Style:Astylistic Utilitarian Building
Structural System:
Wall Material:Concrete Block
Other Buildings On Site:
Demolished Date:
National/State Register Listing Name: Wisconsin State Prison Historic District
National Register Listing Date:1/22/1992 12:00:00 AM
State Register Listing Date:11/25/1991 12:00:00 AM
National Register Multiple Property Name:
Additional Information:In photo and/or map codes, (S) stands for State Facility Survey. Negatives filed with survey project.

With its Gothic-castle design and tiers of cell blocks, Wisconsin's first state prison is an excellent early example of the Auburn type of prison design. The Auburn plan grew out of penal-reform debates in the United States and Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Reformers decried the prevailing unsanitary conditions and cruel punishments and called for cleaner prisons with individual cells and work and training programs. The reform impulse was humane, but the new prisons that resulted from them were not, by today’s standards.

Following a model developed at New York’s Auburn prison in the early nineteenth century, under which inmates slept in individual cells and performed silent group labor by day, prison authorities built tiers of small cells opening onto catwalks, six to ten feet from the building’s outer walls. The walls themselves framed expansive windows, stretching nearly all the way from floor to ceiling, to provide light and air to all the cells. The tiered blocks of cells became a distinctive, familiar characteristic of American prisons.

Strict rules accorded with the philosophy that criminals first had to be broken before they could be reformed. Prisoners were to keep their eyes downcast and march in lock step. Communication between inmates was forbidden, as was fraternization between prisoners and guards. The idea that prisoners should serve their terms in silence waned in the early twentieth century, and the regimentation that characterized prisons of the previous century had all but disappeared by the 1950s, when the social sciences introduced new philosophies of rehabilitation.

The original Wisconsin State Prison complex--comprising the South Cell House (completed in 1855), the North Cell House (1868), the Main Building (1858), and the prison wall and guard towers (1858-1861)--exemplifies the fortified Gothic Revival style employed for many prisons. Medieval dungeons were visual models adopted by most of the institutions adopting the “Auburn system.” They featured limestone walls, embattled parapets, octagonal watchtowers with lancet windows, and heavy brackets below the cornice. The prisoners themselves, trained by local stonecutters, erected the buildings.

The extant portion of the historic prison encompasses two additional cell houses (finished in 1909 and 1914), a kitchen and dining room (1914), and an auto tag plant (1931). The binder twine factory built in 1909 has lost its historic appearance.
Bibliographic References:Buildings of Wisconsin manuscript.
Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, Division of Historic Preservation, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin

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