Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Eastern State Penitentiary

(c) 2005, m. wells

Eastern State Penitentiary, in the heart of Philadelphia, is a preservation project extraordinaire. Not only that, but it serves as haunted house, filming locale, art gallery, and an excellent Fourth of July diversion. I went there on the fourth with my friends from the Baltimore-area, punk-folk musician Kellee Webb, and Scott (Rooster) from Rooster and the Cocks of the Walk, a psychobilly band.

Anyway, the place is amazing, and highly recommended--especially for preservationists. Have a look, and see what greatness can occur when a building isn't messed with much, but left to decay as it would without intervention. The result is beautiful. It isn't an option for all preservation projects, but it certainly works for this building. I'm not sure what the ultimate intention is, but I hope that at least some wings are left as is, in the process of preservation.

They have made some interesting additions since the 1970s, when the building closed. These include the tidied and furnished cell that held Al Capone, complete with oil painting, desk and lamp, and more; a cell block where the original look of the front of the cells was recaptured (as a penitentiary, the prisoners originally had no contact--not even visual contact--with other prisoners); and a few cells which have been cleaned out and replastered, so that one can see what the place might have looked like when inhabited by regular prisoners.

They have also included art exhibits, which really add to the appeal of the place. If you can make it in time, don't miss the ghost cats. Also, the sound exhibit in one of the cell blocks is chilling. Also, various pipes lead the way to escape routes used over the years.

The building itself is pretty interesting. Opened in 1829, the principles of the building were radical. It called for complete isolation, and a panopticon design--both of which hindered escape, and were essential to futhering the Quaker philosophy of the place. The idea was to truly reform criminals, and to return them to society without anyone knowing they had been imprisoned. Also interesting was the inclusion of indoor plumbing--not just in some locations, but in every cell! The stories of Willie Sutton, Al Capone, the tunnel escape, the cat-inhabitants and much more, are told here. It's worth a trip.

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