ON THIS DAY: April 29, 1995, New $147M Allegheny County Jail opens

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail, a masterpiece of design by Henry Hobson Richardson at the time it was built in the late 1800s, needed to be replaced with a more secure and humane facility, as most prisoners were awaiting trial and not convicted. The new jail cost $147 million and more than 100,000 people showed up to tour the facility starting on April 29, 1995.

Federal courts had mandated that the new jail be built to eliminate poor and overcrowded conditions. Construction took 29 months.

The new jail caused such a sensation as it neared completion that officials decided to offer “freedom tours” so that the public could see it, resulting in lines over a quarter of a mile long and including former prisoners. Current inmates were transferred a couple weeks later after jail staff went through orientation.

The site chosen for the new jail was a 17+ acre peninsula. It’s separated from the Monongahela River by the Parkway and Second Avenue separates it from the city on the other side. It’s also adjacent to the new courthouse, which makes processing prisoners more efficient.

Tasso Katselas Associates designed the building, which cascades from a nine-story peak down to five stories, so as not to detract from Duquesne University’s Old Main Building behind it. The building’s exterior is a mix of brick, precast concrete and glass, which is typical of Katselas’ work.

Inside, the jail offers 850,000 square-feet of floor space, containing 1,800 cells split into 35 living units or “pods,” all under direct security supervision. Each floor has six to eight housing zones that are double tiered and can accommodate 84 inmates in 56 cells with their own outdoor recreation area and a central day room for meals and leisure time. Each cell has a narrow slit window for natural light, a sink and toilet, and nonflammable mattresses on bunks.

The jail opened with a capacity of 1,850 men and women, but can be expanded to house up to 2,400. Inmates are sorted by objective classification criteria, housed in pods with other inmates according to those classifications, and under security permissions, programs and activities that suit the classification of the pod.

Other innovations in the jail’s design included extensive use of precast day room sections and cast-in-place cell construction. Contractors could pour eight cells a day in each zone, which sped up construction time considerably (multiplied over 1,800 cells) and also added security by eliminating masonry joints. Tunnels between rooms were also precast and reinforced.

The facility also has juvenile areas, a large medical and mental health clinic, visiting areas, administrative offices and even dormitory housing for work-release inmates.

Security for the new jail was developed by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, who also engineered the mechanical and electrical systems.

The jail won a citation for design excellence in March 1995 from a joint committee of the American Institute of Architects and the American Correctional Association.

“Architecture is life taking creative possession of space. It is a call to share in the world’s making -- to enhance what exists by the sheer power of one’s presence and activity,” said Katselas.

Katselas was born to Greek immigrant parents in Pittsburgh in 1927, and studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). While teaching at Kansas State College, Katselas met Frank Lloyd Wright and was referred to Liliane Kaufmann to design a chapel for Fallingwater. She died before the project could be started.

Many of Western Pennsylvania’s modernist architecture can be attributed to Katselas. His early design work reshaped numerous neighborhoods in the area, particularly low-income housing, most of which has since been demolished (like Penn Plaza in East Liberty).

Katselas’ brutalist modernism is best observed in other high-profile commissions like the Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh International Airport, Milton Hall and the Campus Library at the Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side and the University of Pittsburgh’s Information Sciences Building.