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Kaleidoscope: Mansfield self-guided prison tour enjoyable; Bissman Building intriguing

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published: August 10, 2016 1:00 AM
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In recent years, I had toured the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield a couple of times. On July 9, I decided to go a third time.

The reformatory is listed as the No. 1 most haunted place in the United States in a book titled "America's Most Haunted," written a couple of years ago by Eric Olson of Aurora and native Clevelander Theresa Argie.

At one time, the tours were only guided, and those were the ones I took. Now, the facility offers self-guided tours, and that's what I decided to do this time.

Since I'm familiar with the prison's history and have heard many stories from guides on previous tours, I thought roaming through the massive structure at my leisure would be a welcome change.

And I was right; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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On the self-guided tours, visitors can take as much time as they want exploring the many sections of the 250,000-square-foot building. I was there for more than two hours.

A recommended route around the building is marked with arrows, but the trek can get confusing at times. It starts in the ticket-buying room at the front of the castle-like monolith.

I've been fascinated by the stone structure since I first saw it in the 1960s, when my mom's cousin, who we were visiting in Mansfield, drove us past it.

As an 11- or 12-year-old kid, my eyes widened with awe as we drove down Reformatory Road past the boulevard-like entrance / exit driveway. We sat and gazed at the prison from afar.

I referred to it as "Dracula's Castle" -- a term many first-timers use to describe it. The gothic stone building was designed by Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield and built between 1886-96.

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Scofield also designed Cleveland's Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the square.

The prison was closed in 1990 after a federal court ruling called the "Boyd Consent Decree" was handed down, because conditions had become deplorable.

The prison housed 155,000 inmates over its lifetime, with about 2,200 there at closing. It was built with the intention of "reforming" young prisoners.

AROUND THE BUILDING

The west side of the main entrance area housed the administrative offices and assistant warden's quarters. On the second floor is the room used as the warden's office in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption."

In the movie, the safe where the warden kept secret papers and the desk at which he sat when he shot himself also are in that room.

On the east side of the main entrance were the warden's living quarters. A beautifully restored dining room and the facility's gift shop are there now.

Also on that side is a museum displaying prison-related items, including the "Old Sparky" electric chair used at the Ohio Penitentiary. No executions ever took place at OSR.

When I visited OSR in 2012, a replica of the Ohio Pen's electric chair was on display. It has since been moved to the Toledo Police Museum.

On the second floor behind the main entrance and between the two cell blocks is the central guard room, where inmates were received and visitation was permitted.

Above that large room, which now can be rented out for wedding receptions, reunions and special events, is the old chapel with pews still intact.

Also in that middle section was the tuberculosis ward.

Jutting off in back of that area are the west diagonal, where solitary confinement cells (referred to as "the hole") were located, and the east diagonal, site of the Shawshank library and OSR's barber shop.

Shower rooms were located on the west and east ends of the cell blocks on the north side. A commissary in the east wing now stores toilets and sinks removed from cells after the prison was shut down.

The prison's main library was in the east wing. Its circulation desk is still intact and signs stating "circulation," "reference" and "information" are still visible.

MORE PRISON FACTS

The west cell block was the first to be completed, and has five levels. The east cell block has six levels and is considered the largest free-standing steel cell block in the U.S.

The prison yard was out back, and there were several other buildings inside and outside of the high wall which surrounded the yard.

Those buildings included a trusties' dormitory, print shop (which produced state catalogues and brochures), farm area and shoe, furniture and other industrial shops where prisoners worked.

The auxiliary buildings are gone, replaced by the current Mansfield Correctional Institute (ManCI) and the Richland Correctional Institute, which each house about 2,600 inmates.

There's a pond in front of the old prison and a cemetery at the side, where about 200 former inmates are buried. The latter is not accessible to the public.

The facility is run by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, and brings in a lot of money from tours, ghost walks and hunts, and special events.

When I visited in 2012, paint was peeling from the walls and ceilings in the administrative area and former living quarters. New drywall and paint are evident now in some rooms.

Overtime ghost hunts usually have to be booked weeks in advance because of their popularity.

A Hollywood guided tour is offered featuring areas shown in "Shawshank" (1994) and "Air Force One (1997), as is a west tower tour up to the central guard tower and through the prison's tunnel system.

Other guided tours available are of the east cell block, central guard room and chapel; and a behind the scenes look at areas not open to the public such as the west attic, sub-basement and inmate yard.

Scenes from "Harry and Walter Go to New York" (1975) and "Tango and Cash" (1989) were filmed at the prison prior to its closing. Dozens of ghost-related TV shows and music videos have been filmed there, too.

THE BISSMAN BUILDING

Another spot in Mansfield that I'm intrigued by is the Bissman Building, which was the site of the Brewer Hotel and Portland Daily Bugle office in "Shawshank."

It's in the downtown Mansfield "flats," and is where the "Shawshank" scene of inmate Brooks (James Whitmore) hanging himself after being paroled was filmed.

The four-story high "haunted Bissman Building," as it is called, is 130 years old, having been built in 1886 to house a wholesale grocery, tobacco and liquor distributing firm.

The Romanesque and romantic gothic building was erected by the same company that built the reformatory. It's still owned by Bissman family members, some of whom had roles as extras in "Shawshank."

Although the building is one of the spookiest I've seen -- especially at dusk -- it still houses businesses, including a screen printing / embroidery shop and auto restoration service.

The Bissman Building hosts tours, ghost walks and ghost hunts, and has been featured on several paranormal activity television shows.

Just a couple blocks south of the Bissman Building is Carousel Antiques, the shop where Red (Morgan Freeman) from "Shawshank" peered through a window at the compass that later led him to the famous Oak Tree.

The once beautiful oak tree, across the road from Malabar Farm near Mansfield, was split in half during a windstorm in 2011, and the other half was toppled just three weeks ago.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189


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