- Historic Sites
In Windsor Prison
IT BEGAN AS America’s most modern penal institution, and for generations the Vermont State Prison reflected the changing ways by which we thought we should punish our wrongdoers. Then a tormented era and a ghastly crime combined to end its old career—and give it a surprising new one.
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Of course the prison was completely antiquated, with cells far smaller than national standards allow, and there was truth in what legislative investigators said about it: that to enter it was “like stepping back into the 15th century,” that it was “this monstrosity from the past” defying restoration. “The complex,” said an expert from the state health department, is “ancient, decaying, depressing. . . . The overall atmosphere is one of gloom, frustration, isolation, and hopelessness.” But on the day it officially shut there were those, Mike Coxon among them, who felt a certain sadness. What a world of pain and suffering these walls had enclosed, day in and day out and every day for long and terrible years. Who had come there? People who failed their schools, their families, their communities, themselves most of all. Many of them, Coxon knew, were the children of men his father had known in his days as deputy warden, the names of thirty years before coming back, some following not only father but grandfather.
And yet, he thought, walking the eerily empty and quiet halls from which doors had been taken off their hinges and locks made inoperative, and plumbing, air ducts, and bulletproof glass sent off to other state institutions, the prison had not been entirely a desolate, degenerate place. For some of the inmates it had been a home of a sort. That was what the little baseball scoreboard said along with “visitors": HOME . Very often the guards and employees were the only people who cared anything, anything at all, for certain men; no one visited, no/one sent gifts. Christmases were well done, with cookies and entertainment. Men learned, some of them, to do fine wood-carving. Some guards, as kindly as the job permitted, were the best people many of the prisoners had ever known. Anyway, it was all over now. One hundred and sixty-six years.
Entirely silent and deserted, the great building squatted in the center of Windsor. Had it been located in, say, the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris, or along New York’s Park Avenue in the Sixties, demolition crews would have been on the job. But spend God knows how much to provide little Windsor with an empty space? No one in the world was going to do that. A New Jersey man suggested making the building into a restaurant-disco to be called The Cell Block, with waiters dressed in black and white stripes. Columbia Pictures was interested in dynamiting a portion for an escape scene in a movie. Neither plan worked out.
Rated as excess property of the state of Vermont, the place had by law to be advertised for sale. The official in charge of such matters announced that sealed bids would be accepted. He did not expect any. “Did you ever try to sell a house of three hundred rooms with bars on the windows?” he asked.
But the ad in The New England Real Estate Journal did attract the attention of one reader. He was sixteen years old, the office boy for a Boston lawyer interested in renovation projects. The young man directed his boss’s attention to it. The boss got in touch with the president of the Peabody Construction Company and Peabody Properties, in Braintree, Massachusetts. “I’m doing something crazy,” he said. “Would you like to be my partner?”
They had no idea of what to offer- there was little of precedence to guide them—but after complicated reasoning decided on $27,050, just $2,950 less than what the legislature had allocated for construction in 1807. They sent the office boy with a 10 percentdown check to file their bid. He submitted it, the offer was accepted, and the kid went home with the news wearing his new “Windsor State Prison 1809-1975” T-shirt.
“The developers of olde I Windsor Village have fashioned, from an old Vermont JL. prison, one of the loveliest, most convenient apartment communities in New England. The classic Federalist architecture of the original buildings has been carefully preserved. What was originally the prison yard is now a beautifully landscaped courtyard garden. The complex offers a wide selection of floor plans, both one- and two-bedroom, and a limited number of specially equipped handicapped units are available. Surrounded by the Green Mountains of Vermont, Olde Windsor Village is truly one of the most beautifully unique apartment communities in New England. Care-free kitchen with refrigerator and electric range. Plush pile carpeting. Laundry rooms. Shades and drapery rods included. ”