Tours Planned For Old Missouri State Penitentiary. If Only It Still Had World Famous Street Art To Attract Visitors...

The Columbia Missourian reported over the weekend that several state agencies are pushing to open the doors of the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City to tourists.

One hundred years before Alcatraz opened, the Missouri State Penitentiary was in operation. When it closed on Sept. 15, 2004, it was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River.

For 170 years, residents wondered what was behind "The Walls." And when they had their first opportunity to go inside, more than 20,000 toured in two days.

Since then, the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission has received frequent requests from those eager to see what history has left behind.

Some are interested in the famous people who spent time there, others are curious about what a prisoner's life might have been like and others might be looking for the generations of architecture there.

What else might entice would-be tourists to take a stroll through the halls of the decrepit old slammer? How about paintings and murals from internationally known artists like Michael De Feo, Mark Jenkins, and Depoe, not to mention contributions from local talent like Peat Wollaeger, Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh? You know, pretty stuff that looked like this:

Photos: Michael De Feo/

Or this:

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Oh wait, they had those paintings. And these too. They were part of Jeff City's 2008 "Art in the Park" festivities. But shortly after the event ended in August, the state paid to have the art soda-blasted off, returning the prison walls to their lovely bland shade of gray. 

Needless to say, the artists were pissed when they found out their work wasn't permanent.

Here's what we reported about the conflict in our feature story about St. Louis graffiti back in January:

"It's like nothing even happened. You can't even see the remnants of color," says [Bryan] Walsh. "The walls of the courtyard we painted border the gas chamber. That place was nothing but nasty. Why preserve that? And to spend taxpayer money to remove the art? That seems like a practice in futility."

Larry Schepker, commissioner of the Missouri Office of Administration, which manages the state's publicly owned buildings and grounds, says that had been his intention all along ... "The idea is that it will turn into a real asset for the citizens of Missouri."

Now, in the wake of the proposed tours, the same anger from the artists is getting stoked again.

Local artist Justin Tolentino installed a large wood panel mural from an art exhibition in St. Louis in the prison yard and painted another one with Walsh.

"You'd think they'd keep that around if they were planning on doing tours. I just think they weren't happy with the aesthetic we had going on. It scared the shit out of them," Tolentino says. "It's kind of fucked up. I felt that having that art there would open up the minds of the art world in Jeff City. Instead it basically just closed them off."

But the irony of ironies in this story is that even the supposedly cherished architecture and macabre allure the old State Pen has to offer will soon be history. Reports the Missourian: "The prison site is targeted for redevelopment of up to 3 million square feet of hotels, retail, office and restaurant uses."

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