The Rehabilitation of Alcatraz for Tourism

This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space and tourism.

Rehabilitation of some of Alcatraz’s buildings highlights the island’s primary tourist function as a historic prison. The island has been occupied for a variety of purposes since 1853, and time has taken its toll on every building on the island.  The buildings that have been maintained reflect the site’s focus on Alcatraz’s most famous role as a federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963.

Buildings such as the former Post Exchange, Officer’s Club, Industrial Buildings, and the Warden’s Home no longer contain interior structures or roofs and are extremely dilapidated.  These buildings were not maintained because they are only tangentially associated with prisoners’ lives on the island.  Most prisoners did not see these buildings.

The Storehouse and Barracks have been renovated to serve tourists’ interests.  Today, the Storehouse is largely unseen by the average tourist; as in the past, the building is still used by employees as a maintenance warehouse, and no effort is made to conceal its modern-day function.  The Barracks have also been renovated, but the building no longer serves its original purpose.  The former Barracks now house a theater, a gift shop, and many galleries.

Unlike some of Alcatraz’s buildings, the island’s landscaping remains consistent with its state during the federal penitentiary era. Prisoners maintained the gardens facing the Golden Gate. To this day, these gardens remain manicured with the original species of plants. Similarly, the officers’ gardens are maintained in their authentic state. In contrast, aside from designated garden space, the rest of the vegetation on the island is wild and unkempt, as they were during the penitentiary era. Furthermore, plants have overtaken dilapidated buildings, and vines creep along crumbling walls.

The emphasis on the federal penitentiary is so pervasive that information provided to tourists ignores the other periods in Alcatraz’s history. No information is available on the cellhouse audio tour about its role a as a military prison from 1912 to 1934. The 19-month American Indian occupation of the island in 1969-70, signs of which are scattered throughout the island, is left largely unexplained.  All of the information provided in the audio tour and on the informational placards addresses only the island’s role as a federal penitentiary.

Tourists' first glimpse of Alcatraz
Barracks: Tourists’ first glimpse of Alcatraz

Dilapidated stairs are scattered throughout the island
Stairwell: Dilapidated stairs are scattered throughout the island

Dilapidated exterior of Post Exchange building
Former Post Exchange: Dilapidated exterior

Interior of cellhouse
Cell Block: Interior of cellhouse

Manicured gardens facing the Golden Gate
Prisoners’ Gardens: Manicured gardens facing the Golden Gate

-Sally, Madelyne, Josh

 

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2 Responses to The Rehabilitation of Alcatraz for Tourism

  1. Michael Paliocha says:

    I thought you guys touched on a really interesting trait of tourism. When a place has a universally interesting trait like Alcatraz, it can only realize its potential as a profitable tourist attraction by streamlining its appeal. Without creating a representative environment for tourist, tourism would not have the appeal of effortlessly experiencing a place that is easily definable as something different and interesting. It frustrates me that people are not willing enough to explore the entirety of a place. If they were though, there would be no tourism. There are lots of places in New York that function the same way like Times Square and the Village. These places, like Alcatraz, have become the way they are because of aesthetics. They all give the unfamiliar eye a discernable trait to associate the place with.
    -Michael (CCNY)

  2. Joshua Wong says:

    Michael, I agree with your remark about people not being willing enough to explore the entirety of a place. However, visitors are not even given the opportunity to better understand the different eras in Alcatraz’s history since they are scarcely mentioned. We actually did not know about the American Indian occupation until we bought a visitor’s guide. It is uncertain whether or not most tourists would find the other eras interesting, but it is a shame that they are ignored.

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