Jail Construction: Materials and Technology

The Bill of Rights prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the 1800s, the architects and administrators of the Essex County Jail confined and supervised individuals who were neither to be tortured nor deprived of their legal rights. Rather, Newark’s government furnished the Jail with running water, sanitation, electricity, and heat at a time when few Newarkers on the outside enjoyed these amenities. Haviland’s jails had indoor plumbing and sanitation before the White House did. Early adoption of technology was common in public buildings such as libraries and prisons. For example, the old Essex County Jail had glass catwalks and self-supporting modular steel cells in the East Wing. The walls of the West Wing were lined with an early version of a radiant-heat pipe system. The West Wing’s masonry cells could be locked with levers.

Unless otherwise specified, all photos and drawings on this page are by Columbia University GSAPP.

Page Contents



Time-lapse animation by Myles Zhang


On the city outskirts, the $30,000 Jail is surrounded by farmland and the Morris Canal. The structure of locally quarried sandstone consists of a Warden’s House, a single cellblock for males, females, and children, and a 12-foot perimeter wall. Prisoners mix during the day and are confined to cells by night.


Newark’s population grows 73 percent in 20 years with an influx of largely Eastern European immigrants. Made of bricks from Upstate New York, the new West Wing doubles the jail’s capacity.


With a Women’s Wing, the jail separates women and children from adult males. A new administration building houses more offices and guards.


The new North Wing increases the Jail’s capacity by 50 percent. Also added: a garage for cars, and a powerhouse that would supply heat and electricity using technology developed by Thomas Edison in his Newark lab. The perimeter wall is extended northward to the Morris Canal.


The jail adds a two-story hospital and a laundry, where prisoners work during the day.


The jail attains its present scale – 15 buildings of various size, material, function, and design.




The computer model below is a massing study. It shows the jail’s overall layout and relative height of each building. Dimensions are sourced from on-site measurements, drawings from Columbia students, and original site plans of the jail. Click and drag mouse to orbit around space, or click individual annotations.








“This far-famed city of Newark has done well. The excellency of your manufacturers is working a large influence on the importation of foreign manufactures.”

President Ulysses Grant
September19, 1872 at the Newark Industrial Exposition


East Wing Axonometric View


The Essex County Jail spanned several historical periods. When it was founded in the 1830s, Newark was an agricultural town. When the last changes were made in the 1930s, Newark was an industrial metropolis. The choice of material in each subsequent addition to the Jail reflects this broader shift. The oldest wings are made of local and hand-carved sandstone, later followed by mass-produced brick, steel, tin, and concrete. Almost all materials were locally sourced from Newark’s diverse range of industries.


Terracotta on Roof of Hospital

Terracotta was a significant material choice for later additions to the Jail. According to building records, the Raritan Hollow and Porous Brick Company provided the fireproof tiles for the ceilings of the cell blocks, adding a protective layer to the timber framing. In other areas, such as the Hospital Wing, flat arch flooring was implemented as a fireproof structure using hollow, extruded terracotta that was lightweight and durable.


Steel Bars in East Wing

The cell structures in the North and East Wings are made of steel. Steel bars were installed over the windows but later removed, as it can be seen from the voids in the masonry in the Warden’s Office.



Pressed Tin

Ceiling Tiles in Warden’s Office

Remnants of pressed-tin ceiling tiles remain in each cell blocks. Manufacture of these tiles began in the late 19th century and their use gained popularity in the early 20th. Tin was most likely installed as part of later alterations during and after the 1890s. The tiles are thin sheets of steel, coated in tin and pressed with an intricate pattern. In the Essex County Jail, these tiles – originally white – were installed with plaster over metal lath in a fashionable imitation of decorative plaster. Over time, the tin rusted.


Brownstone on Perimeter Wall

Brownstone was available locally, for there were numerous brownstone quarries in Essex County. John Haviland’s perimeter wall, Warden’s House, and the East Wing of 1837 were all made of brownstone. Brownstone fell out of favor as a building material since it easily degraded if not installed properly. This stone was used in varying degrees from the colonial era to the early 20th century. Later additions to the Jail employ brick instead of brownstone. New Jersey’s last brownstone quarry closed in the 1930s.


Fallen Wood Beams in West Wing

Wood was primarily used in the roof. Fallen beams show dovetail joints, carpenters’ marks, and cut iron nails, which were used from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.





Brockway Brand Brick
Brick Wall in Engineering Room

Brick was used to construct the original cells. While the East Wing’s cells were rebuilt with steel, brick remains in the West Wing, the Warden’s Office, and the walls of many additions. Many of the bricks are stamped with a manufacturing mark, distinguishing the different manufacturers used in the additions to the Jail over time. For example, HB&Co is seen in the West Wing (ca.1890), Brockway in the Power Plant (ca.1904), and the Terry Brothers, the first manufacturer to use coal as a source of fuel in their kilns, in the Laundry (ca.1909). Of the 11 different manufacturers’ marks currently found in the Essex County Jail, five have been matched to companies that were located in the Hudson River Valley.





Institutional architecture traditionally welcomed the development of new construction technologies. Correctional facilities, confining an ever-growing population while under pressure to be humane, inspired new technologies to keep the jails illuminated, safe, and functional. The Essex County Jail received modern plumbing just after the turn of the 20th century. Private latrines were installed in individual cells, and each wing had pipes running connected to cells and showers. This infrastructure contributed to smooth daily operations. These technologically advanced systems included plumbing, heating, electricity, and cell-block-locking mechanisms.






The introduction of modern plumbing in jails began with the development of larger-scale institutions like the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. In the late 19th century, architects realized the need to separate drinking water from sewage and other wastes. The Essex County Jail saw the addition of a modern plumbing system just after the turn of the 20th century. Changes made within the jail included the addition of private latrines in individual cells and showers in the East Wing. The plumbing for these systems ran in a continuous void between the cells.


Cell-locking Mechanism in West Wing

Since the Essex County Jail functioned as a temporary holding facility, the cells were small and cramped. The first cells were masonry construction but were later upgraded to a steel structure (similar to that of library stacks) to accommodate more inmates. These upgraded cells were manufactured by the Pauly Jail Building Company of St. Louis. Their patented steel cell technology, developed in 1900, was introduced to the Essex County Jail shortly after the turn of the 20th century. These cells and their multi-levered locking mechanisms still stand today.

designed by the Pauly Jail Building Company of St. Louis


Heating and Electricity

Steam Engine and Generator

Prior to modern heating systems in large facilities, coal-burning stoves were the standard method for heating. Coal was dirty, unreliable, and costly. Engineers and inventors worked to develop alternatives. In the 1830s, Angier March Perkins introduced radiant heat by means of steam pipes that warmed larger areas more safely and efficiently. An adaptation of this system is seen at the Jail, where a system of tunnels housed piping, which ran from large steam boilers to the radiators in each wing.



Onan Electric Plant Machine
Engine or Generator – Possibly Diesel
Photogrammetry by Rob Kesack


Generator and Steam Engine
Built by Watts-Campbell in Newark
Photogrammetry by Rob Kesack


from Watts Campbell Company advertising brochure, ca.1883, from collections of Zemin Zhang


Boiler Room – Rob Kesack