The setting for “Shawshank Redemption” and several other films is slowly being restored for tours. Just don’t shut the door.
MANSFIELD, Ohio – When the historic Ohio State Reformatory closed in 1990 after 94 years in operation, officials wanted to tear it down. Those vast expanses of green lawn were destined to become parking lots for the two new nearby prison facilities.
But razing the massive stone structure — the back walls alone were 25 feet tall, 6 feet thick at the base and up to 250 yards long — was a task akin to bringing down Tyrannosaurus Rex with a peashooter.
“You can imagine how much dynamite would be needed,” said the Rev. Ron Puff, a local Baptist minister who appears to know every stone and windowpane, every inch of the rust and peeling paint covering the massive cellblocks.
Instead, the former reformatory for delinquent young men that later became a maximum-security prison got a reprieve. Through some savvy marketing by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, it drew 80,000 visitors last year.
People come for extreme ghost hunts, a huge Halloween festival and murder mystery dinners. But the biggest allure is a chance to see the site of the 1993 filming for what’s considered by some as one of the greatest movies of all time — “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Slowly, thanks to the efforts of the society, the prison is being brought back to life. Parts of the buildings are heated for the first time in decades, rooms cleaned and decorated. Huge cathedral windows providing the only natural light along the multitiered cellblocks are being replaced. Stained glass window panels damaged by the elements or vandalism have been removed for repair.
Given the size of the project, it will be a long, long time before work is finished — if ever.
“It’s a 100-year project,” said Paul Smith, director of the reformatory and owner of a local wine bar, the Hungry Grape. As such, he reports to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. “We set everything up to create a foundation for years to come.”
The society purchased the site for $1 in 1994, with the understanding it would revert to the state if progress were not made. All funds raised, except for staff salaries, go back into restoration.
The design of the Ohio State Reformatory by Cleveland architect Levi Scofield was said to have been influenced by the 16th-century French Chateau de Chambord, giving the massive stone structure the elegance of rooftop spires and high, arching windows.
There are several wings of cellblocks. The East housed up to 1,200 inmates in six tiers, 100 cells to a tier, stacked to the vast ceiling. The West, slightly smaller, held 700 inmates. Unlike the East, where fence-like lattices ran the entire way from top to bottom, this stack had no such protective railing and inmates fighting could fall — or be thrown — over the sides of the walkways.
It explains why, when asked if executions were carried out there, Puff replied, “No, no legal ones.”
“The Shawshank Redemption” wasn’t the only movie shot there. Parts of 1989’s “Tango and Cash” and 1976’s “Harry and Walter Go to New York” were filmed there. Other shoots include 1997’s “Air Force One,” horror and fantasy features such as 2014’s “The Wind Is Watching” and 2006’s “Fallen Angels.” Rapper Lil Wayne shot a music video for “Go DJ” at the reformatory in 2004, and TV shows such as Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters” and Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” have filmed episodes there.
Is the place haunted?
“How do you prove something like that?” asked Puff. “I’m a pastor, full time, and my beliefs come from the Scriptures. So I have a different view of what’s going on than most of your ghost hunters.”
The reformatory is the jewel in what’s known as the Shawshank Trail tour, which is self-guided. A half-dozen local sites near Mansfield include the Bissman building (exterior of the halfway house where Brooks and Red lived upon release), the bench where Brooks fed the birds, nearby Malabar Farm State Park (Pugh cabin, where Andy followed his wife and her lover) and, across from the park, the oak tree near the old stone wall, largely removed by tourists.
About 40 miles west, in Upper Sandusky, are the wood shop and the Wynadot County courthouse where other scenes were filmed.
Most visitors start their tours at the reformatory. Visitors are warned that they can enter the cells, even sit in the dark, damp confines of solitary. Just. Don’t. Shut. The. Door.
“To be honest, we don’t have keys for some of these,” Puff said, noting that locksmiths have to be called. “We have ‘Get out of jail free’ cards that we hand out, but they know if they get stuck and we have to call someone in here to free them, they’re paying for it.”