Old Prison Will Become a Museum

An old state prison in Sugar Land that’s been vacant for nearly 40 years, is getting a major make-over and a new life. It’s going to be transformed into a satellite facility for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Houston
Public Radio’s Jim Bell reports.

It’s the old Central State Farm prison that closed in 1969. At one time it was out in the middle of thousands of acres of prison owned farm land several miles outside Sugar Land. Today, it’s surrounded by Sugar Land, in the middle of a new master-planned community. Sugar Land bought the building with an eye to leasing it to the Museum of Natural Science for use as a satellite museum, and the latest news is that the Museum Board of Trustees has approved and signed a 50 year lease for the building. Museum President Joel Bartch says it’s a great example of turning something old into something new. 

“Absolutely, I mean it’s an exceptional opportunity not only to preserve a very beautiful, I think, and historic building, but also to sort of build on the success of our educational programs that we’ve had down in Fort Bend County for many many years, in a physical sense going back to the 80s with the establishment of the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park.”

Bartsch says a suburban residential area is a perfect place for a branch of the Museum of Natural Science, and the old prison building is perfect for the museum’s uses.

“For museums you need wide open spaces and big giant ceilings. You can’t fit a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a normal building. Just by virtue of the design, the building itself, on the inside, meets all those criteria. On the outside, five or ten years ago, it was sitting out in the middle of nowhere. Now the whole community is built up around it.”

The City of Sugar Land will pay $6 million of the costs of turning a prison into a museum. The museum will kick in $3 million for renovations and to build galleries and displays. Bartch says everything is still in the planning stages, but people who’ve been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science have an idea of what to expect. 

“It’s basically built as a branch of all the things that we do here. You know with temporary exhibitions, traveling exhibitions, as well as permanent halls, maybe with more of a bent toward the eco-systems of Fort Bend and the Brazos River as sort of a central theme, but also sort of enlarging on that theme and global issues as well.” 

The Central State Prison opened in 1939 and it was home for the inmates who worked on the huge prison farms Sugar Land was once famous for. As Fort Bend County’s population grew over the years, and prison farms fell out of favor with prison reformers, the state sold off large tracts of the land to developers. Newland Communities bought 2000 acres in 2002 to build the community of Telfair. Bartch says if everything falls into place on time, and if the renovations can be done on schedule, the Sugar Land branch of the Museum of Natural Science can open sometime next year.  Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.