As visitors walk into the Michener Art Museum, they are greeted by large arches and walls made of stone that evoke a haunting sense of the past. Behind sculpture gardens and beautiful exhibits, a weighty history lurks at the Museum. What is now a home and stunning testament to the arts and Bucks County culture was once a symbol of dolor in the town: the Bucks County Jail.
The Bucks County Jail was built in 1884 to replace the former jail on Main Street. While most of the dark and foreboding structure has now been torn down, signs of the past remain at the Michener. The former warden’s residence is incorporated into the Museum (as staff offices), as well as the prison walls that now surround the Patricia D. Pfundt Sculpture Garden in the museum’s courtyard. The architecture and design of the jail were inspired by Quaker ideas of reflection and penitence, and the overall design itself echoed that of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Even today, ghost stories from museum staff and visitors keep legends alive.
The jail was constructed as an experiment in the treatment of inmates in confinement. Prisoners (including the six murderous Darling brothers) would bow their heads to enter the 58 cells to accommodate for the low doorways built to enforce humility during their sentences. Each one-person cell was eighteen feet long by eight feet wide, but, in later years, sometimes as many as six inmates were forced into a cell due to overcrowding. Today’s Museum visitors can experience an outdoor exhibit that recreates the dimensions of a cell.
Inhumane conditions reigned at the Bucks County jail for decades before the hiring of Warden John D. Case, who playfully nicknamed the jail the “Pine Street Hotel” in the wake of his new practices of fairness and justice. Inmates were given the freedom of individuality in their clothing, hairstyles, and cell decor during this new era, and cell doors remained open to breathe senses of freedom and human decency through the jail like breaths of fresh air.
Today, Museum visitors enter through an archway beneath a stone structure that once served as the warden’s residence. This archway was the “sally port” for inmates, who would be transported into the museum through this tunnel as the outside would be closed off by the large red doors that still stand today. Although these doors once separated prisoners from the outside world, they now remain open to welcome visitors into a thriving center for art and culture.
Families are invited to experience the current Michener Art Museum behind the prison walls. In lieu of entering the property as inmates, community members are welcomed every day to experience the artwork of renowned artists, and engage with Museum staff and volunteers that provide programs, tours, classes, and more. Experience the storied past—and the compelling presence–of the Michener Art Museum all year long!