Buildings can be scary. Ask Brian Turner, an attorney and field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who recently spent a night at Alcatraz. A group of volunteers doing garden restoration at the infamous San Francisco Bay island prison had been rewarded with a sleepover on “The Rock,” and Turner accepted an invitation to join them. What he found was architecture as forbidding as one might expect.
At Alcatraz, the human imagination is forced into gear as soon as one steps off the boat. Its architecture and design was devoted to maximize the government’s control over some of the most dangerous felons. The visitor must ask: how would I fare if confined to the narrow walls, iron bars, extensive fencing, and 24/7 surveillance with hundreds of other inmates who have done things far outside of acceptable moral standards?
And, as you might imagine, Alcatraz after dark provides even more fodder for the mind. On the night tour offered to the public that evening, we heard stories of attempted escapes, notorious prison personalities, and the monotony of daily life behind bars. You know, kind of like the ghost stories at summer camp--except real.
After touring the facility, Turner chose to bed down on the floor of the cell once occupied by Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Well, he’s a braver man than I. In spite of the promise of a ride home in the morning, when a building is designed in every aspect to say, “You’ll never get out of here,” I’m prone to believing it. –B.D.S.