What can we learn from an old map about a suburban Chicago prison featured in dozens of popular movies and TV series?
Before embarking with me on your walking tour of Old Joliet Prison, take a look at this map from 1886 (click it to enlarge). Then, let’s see what we can learn from it.
What Is the Map's Purpose?
Created by the Sanborn Map Company, this is a fire insurance map of Old Joliet Prison, then called Illinois State Penitentiary. Its purpose was to help fire insurance agents determine the total risk associated with the property.
Since 1867, the Sanborn Map Company has published maps and atlases of more than 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S. Now, thousands of those drawings live online via the Library of Congress for anyone, including you, to peruse.
How Do We Read the Map?
One of the first things we might notice about this map of Old Joliet Prison—as well as the Sanborn Map collection in full—is how colorful it is.
Sanborn Maps use symbols—in the forms of colors, line styles, and abbreviations—so fire insurance agents can quickly and easily interpret complex information.
For example, building construction types are represented by colors:
Likewise, walls, doors, and roofs are designated by line types:
What Can We Learn from the Map?
Now that we know the map's origin and purpose, what can we learn from it about Old Joliet Prison?
First, we can tell that Old Joliet Prison is constructed almost overwhelmingly of stone—limestone to be exact.
Second, any brick used during construction was apparently relegated to places where coal and fire were necessary: the bakery, annealing ovens, and coal storage, for example.
Third, we can conclude that—other than the warden's offices and family dwelling (yes, the warden's family would have lived onsite)—most buildings, as one might expect from a prison, contained few open passageways and interior doors. In fact, if you look closely at the map, you'll find the words No Openings written atop some of the structures.
That said, several windows adorn Old Joliet Prison.
On our two-hour walking tour of this abandoned suburban Chicago prison, you’ll learn more about the architecture of the correctional center as well as those who built and lived within it. You will also hear about Hollywood's century-long relationship with Old Joliet Prison.
In the meantime, take another look at this map along with the locations and descriptions of the buildings. You’ll be surprised how different the facility looks today, once you pass through its barbed-wire fence and imposing limestone walls.
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