On Alcatraz Island, visitors can hear the voices of its former residents, touch its concrete walls and experience the isolation of the island. Yet, the significance of Alcatraz can only be fully understood within the larger context of slavery and incarceration.

In a quick glance

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Historic Site
  • National Register Significance Level: National
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A
  • National Historic Landmark
  • Period of Significance: 1847-1971
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Alcatraz Island_©USA Today

Historical Narrative

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Historical Alcatraz Island_©AlcatrazHistory.Com

Alcatraz Island- ‘The Rock’- is a rocky, lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, California, U.S. with a treacherous history. Spread on an area of 22 acres (9 hectares) the island is located 1.5 miles (2 km) offshore with a steep topography highlighting the structures built on it. It was first explored by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 who initially named it Isla de Los Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans) and sold it to the U.S. government in 1849.

The island has been the land of significant historic events that marked the history of the entire nation in the 1970s. Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse built in 1854 on the coast of California that aided maritime commerce. During the civil war, it served as the prime fort in the center of the Pacific port in the U.S. Masonry. Later on, many buildings were constructed on the island, the most famous one being the first permanent army detachment garrisoned there in 1859. The island was designated a residence for military offenders in 1861. The island was noteworthy as the first army prison; in its heyday, it gained recognition as World’s more secure prison.

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Prison Cell corridor_©Wikimedia Commons

The refortification included a series of strategically positioned guard towers, tougher iron bars, and stricter rulers like a dozen checks throughout the day. The escape looked impossible. It has a long history of serving as a federal prison surrounded by the cold waters of the Pacific for some of the most dangerous civilian prisoners of the gangster era like AI Capone, George ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ and ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, especially in 1934-1963 time periods. It was of national importance as it played a specific role as a repository of irredeemable. The period of significance starts from the military fortifications period (1847-1907), the military prison period (1907-1933), the federal prison period (1933-1963) to the public lands period (1963-1971). This timeline is quite evident from the landscape features and characteristics that date back to each period.

The actual capacity of Alcatraz penitentiary was around 450 convicts but no more than 250 prisoners stayed at the penitentiary at once. However, it had to subsequently end in 1963 since 36 men tried 14 separate escapes.

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Prison Cells_©Buenas Dicas

After being abandoned in 1963, the island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area in 1972. The existing structures on the island have suffered decay and weathering so far. The historically famous lighthouse and four other buildings got destroyed by fire in 1970. Alcatraz Island is now available for the public and tourists from all over the World.

Architectural Narrative: The Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island occupies a significant position around four miles east of the bay’s entrance and covers approximately 22.5 acres on the San Francisco Bay. Being surrounded by the cold Pacific Ocean, it is covered by dense fog and high winds. Cliffs as high as 50 feet encompass the whole landscape. A thin layer of imported soil and vegetation covers the rocky surface of the island. 

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Alcatraz Map_©National Park Maps

Closely looking into the fortress, Alcatraz was truly unassailable in its exterior, interior, and technology; known as an ‘American Gibraltar’ crowned with a masonry Citadel right on the highest point. It housed those dangerous criminals who were believed to be unmanageable for imprisonment in normal Federal prisons.

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Alcatraz Structures_©San Francisco Chronicle

The island and the inhabited structures depicted by the chain-link fences, stark concrete structures, concrete columns, and the surrounding cold Pacific waters are evidence of isolation and separateness. The structures which were used for various purposes like prison workshops etc. have been serving as laundry facilities or industries after the abandonment of the penitentiary. The island also houses a watchtower that was used widely in the federal prison period. Several catwalks were used by guards to keep a close watch on the inmates.

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Alcatraz Cellhouse_©National Park Service

The interiors of the repurposed industries spoke of bleakness and rawness with juxtaposed fenestration to let the winds in and out of the structures. A social hall was built as a military base in 1847 which got ruined in 1969 owing to fire. Later, stabilizing beams have been installed to preserve and keep it from further wreckage. The architecture of Alcatraz Island can be described as ‘block-like.’ Currently, it is much more dilapidated- the cellblocks, prison workshops, watchtowers, etc. -where every structure is a narrative of its history and wreckage.


To enable visitors from all around the world to witness the island’s scenery and bird, marine, and animal life, the ’Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment plan’ was formulated by the National Park Service in 1993.

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Rebuilding Alcatraz_©Hattin Construction Management

Flora & Fauna of the existing Alcatraz Island

  • Western cliffs and cliff tops- With heights of nearly 100 feet, they are nesting sites for sea birds namely Harbor seals, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Hermann’s gulls, and Western Gulls.
  • Created by historic quarrying activities, a series of tide pools exist housing some of the invertebrate species and marine algae are known all over San Francisco.
  • Cliff tops at the north end which once contained a manufacturing industry and a plaza, is one area where birds nest on a large scale.
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Eden of Birds_©Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
  • A steep embankment known as the then powerhouse area is where the native grassland and wild rye creep, hence, supporting the living deer mice habitat.
  • A trail named the Agave Path due to its dense growth of agave is located on top of a shoreline on the south side; provides a home for night herons.
  • Cisterns due to their moist corners are believed to inhabit slender salamanders.
  • Carved from the hillside, covered with rubble, the demolished guard housing inhabits black-crowned night herons, slender salamanders, western gulls, and deer mice.
Gardens_©Alcatraz Garden (U.S. National Park Service)

In conclusion, many of the flora and fauna which were once believed to be extinct or endangered have been discovered in the lands on Alcatraz. Many species of plants, trees, and grasses have been found which are being provided with proper care.

In the coming times.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is renowned for its significant role as a Civil War fortress, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary. It gained recognizance through the 1963 book “Escape from Alcatraz” and the 1962 film “Birdman of Alcatraz.” The island has also been a crucial part of a site of three American-Indian occupations, which lasted from 1969 to 1971. 

Alcatraz Exhibit for Tourists_©KQED

This relevant history brings nearly one and a half million visitors to Alcatraz Island every year which contributes a lot to the island’s maintenance and tourism. Therefore, the Global Peace Foundation has proposed tearing down the ruined structures on the island and repurposing them into a Global Peace Center. Coining San Francisco as the “Geneva of the West,” they see this place full of rich history as an educational, aesthetic, and spiritual hub sufficient to attract millions of people.

Alcatraz Island as a hub for historical traces_©The Bold Italic

Nevertheless, whether it remains a historic reminder of a tragic past or is repurposed as a peace center to bring in a new perspective as a peaceful paradigm for all humanity, it will forever be an important signpost in the treads of time and will continue to attract visitors in the coming times.

Reference List:

Alcatraz Escape

Available at https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/alcatraz-escape  

The Editors of Encyclopedia. Alcatraz Island

Available at https://www.britannica.com/place/Alcatraz-Island 

Island of Incarceration, Island of Freedom

Available at https://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm  [October 29, 2021]

Alcatraz Island

Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcatraz_Island 

[23 October 2022]

Lee F. Mindel, FAIA. The Architect’s Eye visits a site-specific installation at Alcatraz by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

Available at https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/ai-weiwei-alcatraz-slideshow [31 January 2015]

Alcatraz Island Cultural Landscape

Available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/725241.htm#12/35.4352/-104.2623 [December 23, 2020]


Chaos within, Beauty Beyond. She is a compulsive person who obsesses over everything, every detail she finds beautiful! She aspires to make beautiful, functional & thoughtful works to play her part well. She’s not just a human being, she is art with a keen eye for aesthetics; She bleeds through art/words.