The Warden's House on Monument Street is a remarkable work of architecture and a unique reminder of the history of justice and injustice in Baltimore. The Warden's House was erected between 1855 and 1859 as part of a larger city jail designed by local architects, Thomas and James M. Dixon. Originally, this structure served as both a gateway through the jail's perimeter wall and a residence. The warden's apartment was to the structure's west side and a suite for a clerk was to the east. Unsurprisingly, it more closely resembles a fortress than a house, with battlements on the towers, projecting turrets, and lancet windows.
The main jail was altered beyond recognition and the wall was torn down in the mid-1960s to make way for the expansion of the Baltimore City Detention Center. But the Warden’s House survived and won recognition for its unique Gothic design when the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation made it a local landmark in 1986. The site itself has an even longer history as the site of the city's first jail erected in 1800.
In the eighteenth century, a local sheriff controlled the city jail and, according to John H.B. Latrobe, chief counsel for the B&O Railroad, revenue from the jail's operation made up a "most lucrative part of his income." Prior to the Civil War, some of that income was from the sale of Black Americans who had been arrested as runaways, regardless if they were enslaved or free. If the prisoner could not prove he was free or if an "owner" did not claim them, they would be sold at a court-ordered auction. The jailers and wardens would receive a portion of the sale.
For the new jail, the state legislature established a system where the warden worked under the supervision of a board of visitors and was paid a fixed salary. Though the jail would still benefit from arresting suspected runaways by charging a fee for boarding them.
Early prisoners included famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who spent seven weeks there in 1831. In October 1832, the jail held seventy-five people: forty as "debtors" and thirty-five on criminal charges. The latter group included two eleven-year-old Black boys charged with setting fire to a lumberyard.
By the early 1850s, reform-minded observers sought a new jail where the city could avoid mixing children with "old and hardened prisoners." In February 1851, a grand jury reported on the "inappropriateness of the structure" and the "limited capacity" of the building (then holding over 240 people) to the judges of the City Court. In 1855, a design competition awarded the project to Thomas and James M. Dixon, construction began in 1857, and, by December 1859, the new building was complete. Supervised by warden Capt. Thomas C. James, the new jail had three hundred cells in two separate wings. The Sun observed: "Baltimore can now boast of a prison in point of appearance, stability and comfort, second to none other in the country."
This public jail and several private slave jails that proliferated in early 19th century Baltimore all made money by boarding the enslaved for a fee. For instance, travelling families or slave traders would all want someplace to keep their enslaved workers while they stopped for the night. As the Civil War began, and especially after slavery was ended in Washington, DC in 1862, these jails were also used by local enslavers to house their enslaved workers in order to prevent them from running away.
The buildings where prisoners were held remained almost unchanged for a century until they were transformed in the 1960s. The Warden's House is one of the only jail buildings that has been preserved. The gateway had long since been converted into the warden's living room. In 1974, they were converted into offices while keeping the building's distinctive interior intact.
At present, change is coming to the Baltimore Jail once again; threatening the Warden's House and the nearby 1898 Maryland Penitentiary with demolition. In July 2015, Governor Larry Hogan announced the immediate closure of the Baltimore jail following years of concerns and controversy over conditions for inmates and corrections officers. In the spring of 2016, the Maryland Division of Corrections (MDC) released their preliminary plan for the demolition of the Baltimore City Detention Center including this local landmark. Planning is now underway but preservationists are still working to keep this unique reminder of Baltimore's history from disappearing forever.