John Haviland and Radial Prisons

Last week, I discussed the history of Eastern State Penitentiary.  I find the Quaker ideas for punishment and penitence really interesting.  These ideas had to be executed properly in order to create the isolation and self-reflection that was so important to the early prison reformers and the Quaker roots of prisons in Pennsylvania.  The man whose design encapsulated everything they wanted was John Haviland, “the most famous and internationally influential prison architect of all time” (1).

John HavilandHaviland was born in December 1792 in Somerset, England.  We don’t know much about his early life, but he was good at math and art and so was sent to London in 1811 as an apprentice to the architect James Elmes.  By 1815, Haviland left London for St. Petersburg.  He wanted to be an Imperial Engineer.  This did not work out and he left Russia, but not before meeting Sir George von Sonntag.  Von Sonntag had lived in Philadelphia and probably suggested that Haviland head to Pennsylvania.

Haviland arrived in Philadelphia in 1816 “armed with letters of introduction to President Monroe and others, written by von Sonntag and John Quincy Adams, then United States Minister to Russia” (2).  Once in Philadelphia, Haviland opened an architectural drawing school.  He also began to get commissions for churches, public buildings, and homes.  When, in 1821, Philadelphia was looking to build a prison, Haviland submitted a design and won.  This would be Eastern State Penitentiary.  Haviland supervised the construction of Eastern State until it was finished in 1836.

Being the architect of Eastern State Penitentiary made Haviland almost a household name.  He was commissioned to build private and public buildings throughout Philadelphia.  He was also commissioned for the asylum in current-day Portsmouth, Virginia.  Haviland was also working on buildings in Pittsburgh, Trenton (New Jersey), and New York City.  He even had the opportunity to redesign the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh that had been started by rival architect, William Strickland.

Haviland supervised the construction of the court and detention center in New York City “which later became known as the ‘Tombs’ because of its heavy Egyptian style – the name persisting even in subsequent structures” (3).  Prisons became Haviland’s specialty.  He designed the state prisons in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Missouri, and the county jail in Trenton, New Jersey.  He also submitted plans for prisons in Washington, DC, Arkansas and Louisiana, but none of these were built.

In 1839, Haviland was a little disillusioned with the United States and offered his services to build prisons in England, France, and Mexico.  But in 1840, when Pennsylvania allowed individual counties to build their own prisons, Haviland was right back at it.  He built the prison in Harrisburg in 1840, Reading in 1846, and Lancaster in 1849.

Haviland died in March 1852 of apoplexy.  In addition to not knowing much about his early life and family, we don’t know much about his later personal life.  We know Haviland married von Sonntag’s sister and that they had one daughter and two sons, but that’s about it.

So that’s Haviland.  Not a whole lot is known about his outside of his building designs.  He was extremely influential though, even if it’s in sort of a roundabout way…

Haviland’s key piece of prison design was in the radial prison layout.  He didn’t come up with this design though.  England’s Suffolk County Jail in Ipswich, designed by William Blackburn, another prison designer, was probably the first radial jail with a central surveillance point.  Also, mental hospitals at this time had radial plans.  In 1814, while Haviland was in London studying architecture, a plan for a radial mental hospital was published.  It’s possible that Haviland saw or heard of both of these radial plans.

At any rate, Haviland took the radial design and brought it to America where it really caught on.  Three of the prisons Haviland worked on influenced other prisons at the time and for years afterwards: the prison at Pittsburgh, which was V shaped; the prison at Trenton, which was a half-radiating plan, with five wings; and Eastern State.  Trenton’s plan included improvements on the Eastern State plan, including “detached exercise yards, cell doors into the corridors and two-storey wings” (4).  This was the most imitated prison design of Haviland’s.

As mentioned in the previous post about Eastern State, the solitary confinement that it had was controversial.  It was really only ever used in Pennsylvania.  The rival system from New York (solitary confinement at night; communal, but silent work during the day) was adopted pretty much everywhere else in the United States.  The New York system also had rectangular cell blocks, rather than the radial plan.  The radial prisons were used in a few places in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and New Jersey, as well as the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas built in the 1930s (5).  So, while Haviland’s plan wasn’t really used throughout the United States, it was in bringing the idea to the U.S. that made it popular throughout the rest of the world.

As was mentioned in the previous post, a lot of countries (including Great Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, and Belgium) sent delegations to the United States to take a look at Eastern State and other prisons.  Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens both visited Eastern State; de Tocqueville liked what he saw, Dickens did not.  Most of the delegations agreed with de Tocqueville, preferring the Eastern State type prison to the other prisons they saw in the United States.

PentonvilleWhen Britain began building these type of prisons (while they’d had them before, they hadn’t really caught on nationwide), Haviland submitted designs.  The Model Prison, called Pentonville, was this design.  Pentonville had similar modifications to those of the Trenton prison.  Pentonville was completed in 1842; it became the most copied prison in the world.  Britain built similar prisons throughout its empire, in Egypt, Australia, Malta, Burma, and Canada (6).

Other countries also copied the Pentonville design.  Berlin built theirs in 1844, and by 1910 Germany had over 40 of this design.  Belgium had over 20 modelled on Pentonville, some opting for V or X shapes rather than the multiwinged radial plan.  Spain built over 40 prisons based on Pentonville, beginning in 1859, including the prisons in Madrid and Valencia.  Holland, Switzerland, much of Scandinavia, Finland, Portugal, Austria, and Hungary all built large prisons based on Pentonville (7).

The only large countries that did not build large prisons based on Pentonville were France, Russia, and Italy.  At this time all three countries were in the midst of political unrest and so their governments were not stable enough for large scale construction projects.  All three countries did built small detention centers on the radial plan though.

These Pentonville copies extended all the way to China and Japan.  The first westernizing influences in Japan were through prison reform.  Japan built over thirty-three radial prisons modelled on Pentonville, including full circle radial designs.

Prison reform was a huge topic in much of the world in the late 18th c. and early 19th c. and these new prison ideas spread rapidly worldwide.  By the end of the 19th c. though, there were new prison designs being developed, and few radial prisons were built except for a few in the United States.

So, as I mentioned Haviland was influential, even if he didn’t develop the ideas he’s known for.  He brought radial designs from England to the United States.  The rest of the world was looking to the young United States in all sorts of matters, including prison design.  Haviland’s American prison designs were then copied and brought back to England, where they created the Pentonville system.  Pentonville was then copied throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

I find this so fascinating.  There’s really nothing new under the sun and Haviland’s path shows us that.  Haviland didn’t invent the radial plan, and it wasn’t truly his American prisons that were copied, but rather, it was all of his ideas together and modified that became the famous prisons worldwide.  So, even if you don’t have a new idea, you might bring it to a new audience or have a new way of implementing it.  That’s really cool to think about.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – Eastern State Penitentiary-John Haviland


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