From the outside, the brick building at the corner of Washington and Market streets in Crawfordsville looks like almost any other nineteenth-century upper middle-class home. But looks can be deceiving. A blocky structure attached to the back of the house contains an example of state-of-the-art Victorian engineering—the world’s first revolving jail.
Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Rotary Jail and Sheriff’s Residence presented an economical solution to managing prisoners in the late nineteenth century by using a system invented by Indianapolis architect William H. Brown and engineer and blacksmith Benjamin F. Haugh, whose Haugh and Ketchum Iron Works Company became known for supplying architectural ironwork to build jails.
Montgomery County Commissioners hired Brown and fellow architect Edgar J. Hodgson to design the jail and engaged Haugh’s company to build it. The iron and steel design incorporated a mobile block of 16 wedge-shaped cells surrounded by a stationary cage with only one opening. By turning a crank, the jailer could rotate the entire circular two-story cell block on a central axis, aligning one cell at a time with the opening in the cage, effectively “locking” prisoners into their cells—an efficient setup meant to minimize the need for a large security staff.
Beset by mechanical breakdowns, injured prisoners, and prisoners who figured out how to defeat the rotary design, the jail was immobilized in 1938 and closed in 1973. Locals rallied to restore the landmark, including the rotary mechanism, and reopened the former sheriff’s residence and jail as a museum in 1975. The building’s former powerhouse is now the Tannenbaum Cultural Center of Montgomery County, a place for community events.
Of the 18 rotary jails built in the U.S., the Montgomery County Rotary Jail is one of just three still standing and the only one that still rotates. The building’s provenance and architectural integrity have qualified it for consideration as a National Historic Landmark.
Today, visitors to the Rotary Jail Museum can tour the rotating cell block, see jail artifacts, and observe the massive carousel-like platform in the basement that spins the cells. Visit rotaryjailmuseum.org and their Facebook page for information about tour hours and special events.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.
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