September 2009 Issue
Mansfield's legendary Ohio State Reformatory is a haven for film buffs.
A mighty fortress for more than a century, the Ohio State Reformatory looms large over the Mansfield countryside, exuding an aura that’s simultaneously thrilling and chilling.
Built by Levi T. Scofield, a Cleveland architect famous for his Romanesque detailing and Gothic overtones, the building is an intimidating mix that’s part cathedral, part castle Dracula.
And although it’s been 19 years since anyone was incarcerated there, the ominous ambiance — replete with shadows and secrets — remains.
So it’s no surprise that Hollywood frequently comes calling.
Over the past three decades, James Caan and Elliott Gould did time there for the 19th-century caper “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” and Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell played cops and robbers while portraying “Tango & Cash.” The penitentiary was also transformed into a Russian prison for the Harrison Ford drama, “Air Force One.”
But there’s one motion picture role that’s indelibly associated with the Mansfield prison: In 1993, the Ohio State Reformatory served as the setting for “The Shawshank Redemption.” Nominated for seven Oscars, the movie stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as prisoners who forge a friendship based on the desire to keep hope alive despite odds that seem insurmountable.
To celebrate the film’s renown, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society offers one- and two-hour guided tours of the facility five days a week from mid-May through early September. The site has also become a popular place to hold special events, ranging from wedding receptions to high school proms and reunions. Paranormal investigators eager to experience a supernatural encounter occasionally host overnight retreats there.
And the Haunted Prison Experience, staged this month and next, makes other Halloween-themed attractions pale in comparison.
Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society operations manager Susan Nirode understands the public’s fascination with the building and what it represents. She’s been mesmerized by the structure since she was a child.
“I lived up the road just north of the building, so whenever my family came into town, we’d drive past here,” Nirode explains. “It was a working prison back then, and I’d never fail to look over at it. I was amazed by it, I was awed by it — and I was scared of it.”
So was Tim Robbins. On the DVD compiled in 2004 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the movie’s release, he describes the feeling of foreboding that manifested itself the minute he walked through the door.
“I remember,” Robbins says, “walking into the cell block with my son, who was 3 or 4 at the time, and he said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to be here. This is a really sad place.’ He could just feel this incredible weight of many years of pain and suffering that had gone on here. It was palpable. You could really sense it.”
Each month, more than 2,000 tourists make a pilgrimage to Mansfield to see this stately landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some — from as far away as England and Japan — are movie buffs who’ve come to pay homage to the place they know as Shawshank. But others, adds Nirode, are former Ohio State Reformatory inmates who have either stopped by to bring closure to the most horrific time in their life or to teach an unforgettable crime-does-not-pay lesson to impressionable offspring.
“More than 155,000 men came through here between September 1896, when the prison opened, and December 1990, when it closed,” Nirode says, as she leads visitors through the cavernous spaces that served as “The Shawshank Redemption” dining hall, theater and library. “Think about it: 155,000 lives. Not to mention the lives of the victims, the victims’ families, the inmates’ families, the employees who worked here ... the effects of this place just kept spreading.”
Digital cameras click as Nirode pauses before a shower stall and shares a bit of movie trivia: Since the reformatory closed three years before filming of “The Shawshank Redemption” commenced, a combination of dry ice and spray from fire hoses was used to replicate a steamy shower for Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne. As visitors line up to peer through the sewer pipe that (spoiler alert!) led to freedom, Nirode explains that although it seemed endless in the movie, the cylinder that Robbins wriggled through is only 15 feet long and made of plaster of paris. A concoction of Hershey’s chocolate and water simulated the sludge it was filled with.
As “The Shawshank Redemption” continues to garner new legions of fans, the Mansfield/Richland County Convention & Visitors Bureau has made it easy for movie buffs to be part of the picture: Last year, the bureau created “The Shawshank Trail,” a drive-it-yourself tour of 12 places featured in the film, including the Wyandot County Courthouse and Malabar Farm State Park, where opening scenes were shot; and the oak tree under which Morgan Freeman’s character, Ellis “Red” Redding, found a new beginning.
Lee Tasseff, president of the Mansfield/Richland County Convention & Visitors Bureau, knows why the movie’s spell endures.
“‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a great story that has all the elements,” Tasseff says. “A guy’s wrongly accused and winds up where he doesn’t belong. But he learns to survive and is able to go out on his own terms. And the prison sets the stage for all of it.
“In fact,” he adds, “it’s the biggest character in the movie.”