St. Louis County Jail (1889)

The 1887 St. Louis County Jail ca. 1890s, photographer unknown. [Image: Herb Dillon]

614 East 3rd Street | Architect: Oliver G. Traphagen | Built: 1889 | Lost: 1954

Perhaps because it stood so close to the 1883 St. Louis County Courthouse, arguably the most homely building he ever constructed while working for George Wirth, architect Oliver Traphagen put much more flare into his design than did his mentor. The red brick Romanesque Revival building had carved brownstone trim, several Roman-arch windows, Palladian windows in the gables, and iron cresting atop the roof. Its doors, windows, and columns featured carvings. The building didn’t only house the accused: its entire front portion was a home for the sheriff and his family, and the sheriff’s wife prepared meals for prisoners, for which the building held sixteen seven-foot-square cells. The first couple to set up house in the jail was Samuel and Eliza McQuade.

Like Wirth’s 1883 St. Louis County Courthouse, a booming population rendered the jail insufficient within years of its construction. By 1904, when plans for a new courthouse began moving forward, the jail was considered insufficient in size and was known for its notoriously bad circulation. But there was no plan to replace the jail in 1910 when the new courthouse was completed. That year county officials reported that conditions in the jail were “deplorable.” Up to seven men were kept in a single cell. The women’s cells were considered particularly deplorable and called a “disgrace.”

Every year from 1911 to 1920, the county’s grand jury toured the jail, reported on its condition, and repeatedly called for its replacement—and each year the News Tribune countered with calls to remodel or expand the old facility. The old jail did get some work—a new ventilation system and some fresh paint, and the basement was remodeled to hold more prisoners—but it wasn’t enough. In 1916 the grand jury referred to the annual reports as “a joke.” When the U.S. entered World War I the following year, the county jail soon overflowed with “slackers,” men of service age who failed to enlist. Prohibition also muddied the waters: Would the new law decrease criminal activity, as hoped, or would it increase with those circumventing the new law?

The News Tribune changed its tune in 1917, declaring it had been “pig-headed” over the issue. That same year the county announced a tax levy to pay for construction, and architects “swarmed” the courthouse with plans. But the 1918 grand jury said that while the jail needed to be replaced, the expense could not be justified while the country was at war. It was the same old story for 1919. Finally, in 1920, the county announced a new tax levy designed to raise money for a new jail that opened in 1923.

After the jail closed it was remodeled as Hearding Hospital, named for county commissioner John H. Hearding. The hospital served the county’s poor until 1947, when it became a rooming house. At one time sixty-seven tenants called the building home; only seven had to move when the building was razed in 1954. Its lot, the longtime site of a grocery store, is now home to St. Luke’s Hospital’s Hillside Center.