Museums are a place where people go to learn about history.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land, however, had plenty of history before its doors opened in 2009. The 43,000-square-foot building that is now home to dinosaur bones, giant gemstones, and meteorites was originally built to house black inmates as part of the Central Prison Farm.
Commissioned in 1937 and opened in 1939, the Depression-era brick building reflected major improvements in prison reforms enacted in the early part of the 20th century.
“This was a huge step forward in terms of incarceration. Up until then it was pretty Wild West,” said Adrienne Barker, the museum’s director.
Known as Two Camp, the building was constructed of bricks made by inmates at the nearby Jester Unit. It had seven dorms – called tanks – to house inmates plus two additional tanks for guards. Although time spent at Two Camp would be considered brutal by modern standards, Barker said the facility and treatment reflected massive improvements over prior prison conditions.
“Sanitation was a big issue,” she said.
The brick alone was a significant upgrade over wood, which didn’t offer as much protection against the elements and also harbored insects and disease. Two Camp had such luxuries as indoor showers and restrooms, a kitchen, meat locker, bakery, laundry, infirmary, school room, and even a recreation hall where inmates could watch movies, produce talent shows, and engage in other theatrical entertainment.
“The Central Unit was set up to self-sustaining, self-sufficient, and not a drag on taxpayers,” Barker said. “It was a model for the rest of the state.”
The prisoners grew their own food and also ran a canning operation and manufactured soap.
“They manufactured soap into the 1990s,” Barker said. “It was sold to other state institutions.”
The prisoners labored long and difficult days at Central Unit. They got time off on Saturdays for recreation, which included boxing, baseball, and for those who wanted it, school classes. Although the inmates worked on Sunday’s, they had a reduced workload to allow them to attend church services and receive visits from family.
The guards were quartered in Two Camp and also worked six days a week, including alternating Sundays.
Two Camp’s days of housing prisoners ended with desegregation in 1968, when the black inmates were relocated into facilities for whites. The building, however, was converted into a warehouse for storing the soap made by the inmates. In 1999, the facility was finally abandoned.
The state sold off the property and in 2003 Newland Communities purchased the land and buildings as part of its proposed Telfair development. Rather than tear down the building, the developer installed a new roof, replaced windows and did other structural upgrades. Once complete, the building was given to the City of Sugar Land, which made interior refurbishments to the building shell.
“They talked with lots of people about what it might be,” Barker said.
Ultimately, the Houston Museum of Natural Science entered into a public-private partnership agreement with the city to operate a satellite museum there. The museum’s grand opening was held Oct. 3, 2009.
On May 21, museum and city officials unveiled the metal dedication plaque that had long since fallen off the building and vanished. It was returned by the family of a former guard who took it when the prison closed.
Last summer, during a museum visit with his family, Terry Fisher, who was a retired guard, and subsequent warehouse manager in the 1990s, met Barker and mentioned the marker having fallen off the wall during his watch. With the warehouse closing and the area headed to re-development, Fisher took the marker for safekeeping when he retired, believing it would be otherwise destroyed. Fisher immediately offered to return it to its original home, if it was wanted.
Barker travelled to North Texas in early September to meet Fisher and his wife, Kathy, and to pick it up. Fisher died earlier this year, before the marker was back in place, but members of his family came for the ceremony.
“As we got ready to return the plaque, Terry cleaned up, and then hand polished it to make it shine, like a new penny, as he would say. He was so excited to know the plaque would be returned to its rightful, historical place on the building. He was especially looking forward to seeing it in person, but God had other plans,” Kathy Fisher said of her husband.
Museum staff recently refinished the old double wood doors and the plaque has been returned to its original location for visitors to view.
“We very much enjoy the partnership we have with the city and expect to have a long history ourselves in the museum building,” said HMNS President Joel Bartsch. “It is great to have this area of the building complete once again.”