It is impossible to spend any time on or around the harbor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, without coming under the spell of the massive, abandoned, and somewhat eerie naval prison on Seavey Island along the Kittery, Maine, shore. (The Portsmouth Navy Yard is on the Maine side of the harbor, but American military bases take their name from the nearest first class post office.)
Narrators of Portsmouth harbor tours tell tales of Walt Disney’s service here, and that the prison inspired the castle at Disneyland. While in the Navy during World War I, Humphrey Bogart did escort a prisoner to the infamous brig, which was also the destination of the sailors played by Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid in the film “The Last Detail.”
Legends aside, the prison, erected in 1905-08, occupies a strategic post at the entrance to the harbor of New Hampshire’s colonial capital. As the birthplace of the American Navy and still home to a submarine base, the Portsmouth Navy Yard has played a significant role in New England maritime history. There was a fort sited here during the American Revolution, and then again in the Civil War, and prisoners were incarcerated there following the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The mystique of this Yankee Alcatraz has less to do with myth or historical fact than with its location on a rocky island at a treacherous stretch of the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth’s path to the sea. And then there is the physical form of the prison itself.
The Portsmouth Naval Prison is at the tale end of a century of notable penitentiary design in which the United States was a world leader. For both penal reformers and architectural romantics, prison design was a metaphor of civic strength. Battlemented walls, crenellated parapets, and the entire panoply of medieval fortress imagery expressed solidity. Walls kept the bad elements of society behind them while serving as a stern warning to those on the outside. Gothic was the preferred prison style, although the Romanesque was also particularly well suited. Boston’s Henry Hobson Richardson created one of the great prison designs, the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, although the naval prison’s square tower will look familiar to fans of the master’s Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square.
Given the prison’s Gibraltar-like location, one can imagine it rehabilitated as condominiums, a hotel, or offices. One scheme to restore the prison fell afoul of post 9/11 security for the nuclear submarines. Another attempt at luring a developer failed in 2008, but recently it was reported that Uncle Sam is again offering public and private sector interests a leasing opportunity of up to 50 years. “Proposals will be evaluated in several areas … including environmental compliance, compatibility with the base’s mission and economic viability,” said Tom Kreidel, spokesman for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Virginia. Such considerations make it highly likely that the Portsmouth Naval Prison will remain destined to a long future of slow decay. But what a magnificent ruin it will make — the most sublime of follies.
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