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Berks County Prison - Much Ado About Nothing

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Long before the construction of the Berks County prison in Bern Township a battle raged over what to do with the old jail located in City Park.

County Prison - City Park
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A museum, convention hall, and memorial were the most popular suggestions for the prison which was built in 1847.

But the cost of converting the structure into something useful was held to be too high. Architects' drawings were submitted, studied and then discarded.

Along came the Civil Works Administration and State Employment Relations Board and city officials decided that a portion of the plot inside the high jail wall could be cleared with unemployed labor. Down came the boiler house and bakery. But there still remained two cell blocks and the front.

After several prolonged conferences the cell block in the rear was razed and workers started on the cell block attached to the front. Now everything had been razed with the exception of the tall tower and the sandstone front.

Supporters for the preservation of the old prison, had practically abandoned the cause.

"Might as well tear it down," said Miss Mary Archer, strongest champion for preservation of the old structure. "They destroyed the real value when they demolished the buildings in the rear."

There it stood like a house with a front door and no rooms to enter. William I. Hoch, park engineer, suggested that the entire structure be razed and if necessary reconstruct the tower as an observation point at the north bend on the Skyline Boulevard.

City officials had practically forgotten the structure existed and the county washed its hands of the affair when it deeded the property to the city. The opening from the cell block to the tower had been boarded up and the space inside the jail walls had been converted into a play area.

The fate of the historic landmark had caused many to shake their heads. "Shakespeare was right." an idler in City Park declared. "It's a case of 'Much Ado About Nothing.'"

By June 1934 parts of the prison had been torn away. There were still hopes, however, that something could be done with the outer walls, the great tower, and the twin bastions. Regrettably the situation proved hopeless and by 1936 nothing remained.

City officials salvaged all they could. Much of the stone found its way into retaining walls and WPA structures. The field house at Baer Park, West Douglass and George streets, was built entirely from "prison stone," in 1938.

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