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Downtown Dubuque, Iowa Walking Tour
Item 2 of 12
Built in 1857, the Dubuque County Jail housed inmates until 1971. The building was designed by John F. Rague and is a rare example of Egyptian Revival architecture. The jail replaced three previous jails that had been inadequate and allowed prisoners to escape. The walls of the building were made of 18-inch thick limestone. Confederate soldiers were held in the basement during the Civil War. Today, it is the location of the County Medical Examiner, the County I.T. Department, and the Veteran's Affairs Office.

  • The former Dubuque County Jail was built in 1857. Prominent architect John Rague designed it in the Egyptian Revival style. Photo Courtesy of the City of Dubuque
  • Print, Black and white print titled "County Building Historical Landmark." Print features a view of the county courthouse and old jail from the street. Courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum Accession: 2005.1107.04
  • Print, Photographic, Black and white photograph featuring a view of the interior of the Old Dubuque County Jail. Courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum.  Accession # 2007.716

“The Dubuque County Jail is an L-shaped, two-story edifice that consists of two enclosed masses.” [1] The northern enclosed mass used to house the sheriff’s and jailer’s offices and residence. The second mass consists of the jail. The building was designed in the Egyptian Revival style, exhibited in “…the overall massiveness and monumental effected, battered walls, columns, rope-like cornice moldings, sun disk symbols, and the window and door hoods.” [2] The jail is one of the few structures left to exhibit this architectural style. The jail was designed by John F. Rague and was his only Egyptian Revival style design.

        The northern and western sections contained the private dining hall for the sheriff and his family, the old kitchen area, the sheriff’s office, a visiting area for prisoners, a second office, and the sheriff’s private residence. [3] The eastern section consisted of three levels of twenty-four cells built around a large open area. “Eight additional cells were located in the basement…”, known as the dungeon because it was used for especially dangerous criminals. [4 ]In 1874, an addition was designed by architects T. Crawford and William Coates to house women and juvenile prisoners.

        The building served as a jail until 1971 “when it was closed due to being substandard…” It was leased by the Dubuque Art Association from 1975-2003. It then became the Old Jail Museum operated by the Dubuque County Historical Society. [1] The county converted the building into offices in 2016.

        The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. It was designed by famed architect John F. Rague, who also designed the Old Illinois State Capitol and other prominent buildings. Its Egyptian Revival architecture makes it one of Rague's more unique works. The building is also significant as a symbol of the penal reform movement before the Civil War, when the Egyptian Revival was the preferred architectural style of supporters of the movement.

1. “Historic Sites”, River Museum, accessed June 18, 2015, 

2. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form”, National Park Service, accessed June 18, 2015, 

3. “Dubuque County Jail”, City of Dubuque, accessed June 18, 2015, 

4. National Register of Historic Places 

5. Ibid. 

6. Ibid. 

7. Ibid. 

8. Historic Sites