I love that the Pensacola Museum of Art is in an old jailhouse. How did that come to be?
Not many art museums have bars on the windows, at least not like the Pensacola Museum of Art. The museum occupies a building that was originally built to house the Pensacola City Jail.
In the early 1900s, Pensacola’s booming local commerce called for an increase in public services. The city allocated funds for a new police headquarters/jail, and in 1906 construction began on the corner of Jefferson and Main Streets. The two-story structure was designed in the Spanish Revival style by the firm of Ausfield and Blount of Montgomery, and it was built by S.F. Fulghum Construction Company of Pensacola.
In February of 1908, the new facility was near completion. The only thing missing were the jail cells. The city spent $12,000 on four special-order jail cells, but the cells did not arrive by the contracted delivery date. Despite the setback, the city council voted to accept the new jail, and the police moved in that same day. The prisoners were kept in holding rooms separated by steel doors until the cells eventually arrived.
The jail held male and female prisoners, and each were segregated by race. The first floor of the building contained administrative offices, kitchen and dining rooms, a sick ward and the women’s incarceration area. The second floor housed the male prisoners adjacent to a large courtroom. For decades the police operated in the building with a force of about 50 men, while the jail regularly held 15 to 25 prisoners.
Although the facility was new, the amenities were few. The police did not hire a full-time cook for the jail until after 1930. In the early days, prisoners cooked for themselves. Then later, the city dogcatcher served as a part-time cook. The meals consisted of staples like grits, beans, bread and coffee. The average cost of feeding a prisoner was seven cents per day.
Life wasn’t exactly easy for the police either. The city did not provide policemen with full uniforms until 1946. Once a year the department ordered jackets, pants and hats, but officers were responsible for providing their own shirt, shoes, socks, belt, gun and holster. The policemen who opened the jail in 1908 paid about $35 for their uniforms.
By the early 1950s, Pensacola had outgrown its police headquarters and jail again. The city council authorized construction of a new building on S. Alcaniz St. After police and prisoners vacated the building on Jefferson St., local cultural advocates acquired it in 1956 for use by the Pensacola Art Association, now the Pensacola Museum of Art. The building suited the needs of the museum because it was fireproof, secure and centrally located in the historic downtown district.
The city agreed to lease the jail to the art association for one dollar per year. The group transformed the jail cells into exhibition spaces, and eventually purchased the building outright.
Do you have a local history question for The Public Record?
Email it to email@example.com & we’ll see what we can dig up.