“Prison” isn’t usually high on the list of date or family outing ideas, but an afternoon at the Old Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh is fun for all ages.
Self-guided tours of the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail begin at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Ross Street, but the real treat is a trip through the Old County Jail Museum. ‘Allegheny, led by volunteer docents Al and Cindy Stanish on the first and third Monday of each month.
“It’s great fun to share with people, answer their questions when possible,” said Al Stanish of South Park. “Our children are grown and married. It’s time to give back.”
Giving back through education takes on its full meaning for Stanish, a retired professor of environmental sciences from the Chartiers Valley who is passionate about local history. When Stanish’s wife saw a volunteer opportunity with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation about four years ago, she figured hanging out in the prison museum was right up there with her husband.
The Stanishes learned all they could about the prison from former deputy director and museum curator Ed Urban. When COVID-19 hit, the prison museum closed and the Stanishes spent time outdoors, waiting for an opportunity to reopen the prison to visitors.
Bars reopened in May, and the Stanishes – Al, in particular – revel in welcoming people inside to view relics like inmate handcuffs and artwork or marvel at the size of the jail cells.
“These cells are the original brick,” Al Stanish said on Monday, pointing to the thick, cold wall. “They brought them here to build this reconstruction. It’s really, really cool.”
The space is also neat, and Stanish knows all about the prison’s fascinating design and construction. The docent’s eyes sparkle as he recounts the story of the prison and its colorful inhabitants.
“We have two famous people in this prison,” Stanish told a museum visitor. “One was the man who attacked Frick (Alexander Berkman). And the other was Carl Sandburg.”
“Carl Sandburg was here in this prison?” exclaimed the woman.
Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who often read at the Women’s Club of Sewickley, Penn State University and the Pennsylvania College for Women, became acquainted with Pittsburgh in 1904 from the Allenheny County Jail. He even referenced his ten-day stay behind bars in “Boes,” which was featured in his 1916 poetry book, “Chicago Poems.”
“It’s interesting,” Stanish said.
Stanish makes it all interesting: The Venice-inspired Bridge of Sighs, which connects the courthouse to the jail in a beautiful arch over Ross Street; the playground, where the hangings took place; the woman who volunteered and helped prisoners escape from the Old Allegheny County Jail.
But you won’t read the more interesting details – like how the prison sat empty for four months after construction was completed, so the mortar and brick could dry out – or the juiciest prison gossip – like movies shot inside prison walls, business stories and escapes – in this article. You’ll have to visit Al and Cindy Stanish to learn these fascinating bits of history, from the inside.
“I can tell you all kinds of things,” Stanish said.
Learn all sorts of things on a docent-led tour, which is free and open to the public between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first and third Monday of every month.
The Old Allegheny County Jail can be accessed at the Family Court entrance at 400 Ross Street, Pittsburgh.
To book a tour or make sure the museum is open on a certain Monday, contact Mary Lu Denny, Director of Membership Services for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, at [email protected], or call 412-471-5808, ext. 527.
For more information on prison museum tours or the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, visit https://phlf.org/.