By Deanna Day
Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829-1971
After the last prisoners left Eastern State Penitentiary in 1971, the cats moved in. In the early years after its closure the complex was used as storage by the city of Philadelphia, but as the prison walls cracked and crumbled around them, eventually the stray cats became its primary residents.
Yet when it opened almost a century and a half earlier in 1829, Eastern State was billed as one of the largest and most expensive buildings of its time. Built at the top of a hill overlooking Philadelphia, the penitentiary was designed to look from the outside like a European castle. The turreted watch towers and arrow slits, however, were just for show — the original towers were never tall enough for a man to stand in, and the arrow slits don’t extend all of the way through the walls. The immediate work of the penitentiary was performed by its more modern technologies.
Eastern State was designed by John Haviland (the architect of a number of Pennsylvania civic institutions, asylums, hospitals, and jails) as a radial “hub-and-spoke,” with cell blocks fanning out from a central point. In theory, this design allowed a single person standing at the central point to see any activity occurring on the blocks. Each cell was planned to house only one inmate — this was the basis of the famous “Pennsylvania System” of solitary confinement, designed for Eastern State by prison activists and reformers. These reformers believed that the hours spent alone in their cells would provide inmates with the opportunity for contemplation and penance, and the isolation and surveillance provided by the building’s architecture would structurally enforce this penance.
Cells at the penitentiary were themselves technologically advanced for the time; tour guides love telling shocked visitors that penitents had access to a centralized heating system and indoor plumbing before those luxuries were available at the White House. But even these technologies, which today we view merely as modern conveniences, were seen by reformers as part of the technology of control and reform. Having private toilets and sinks in each cell enabled a more total solitary confinement, eliminating reasons for prisoners to leave them. What prison designers didn’t count on, however, was the way that the users of these technologies would alter their meaning — quite quickly, prisoners realized that they could use the pipes in their cells to communicate with each other, tapping out messages that would echo through the walls.
Reopening Eastern State as a Historic Site
By the late twentieth century, Eastern State’s outer walls had become enclosed on all sides by Philadelphia’s expanding population, and many of its internal structures were collapsing. At the time the prison closed, the Pennsylvania System had long been abandoned; in the twentieth century the prison population expanded too rapidly for prisoners to continue occupying solitary cells, and even earlier additional cell blocks were constructed that destroyed the radial surveillance plan. What remained at the end of its life as a prison was a more complicated — and more crowded — complex than originally intended.
Eastern State languished for decades as plans for its future use occasionally cropped up and then disappeared. It was saved from demolition by its designation as a National Historic Landmark (as well as the massive cost of tearing down those iconic stone walls), and eventually a task force proposed a plan to preserve and reopen Eastern State as a historic site. Rather than take on the enormous project of restoring Eastern State to some chosen point in its history, organizers decided on a more dynamic version of historic preservation and public education: a model of “preserved ruin.”
Preserving the site as a ruin serves both practical and pedagogical functions. Not only did it save the impossible expense of a complete renovation, but it has allowed visitors to imagine its history at multiple chronological points. Tour guides and signs describe century-spanning events: walking visitors through the first prisoner admittance in 1829; describing its international reputation and status as a nineteenth-century tourist attraction; recounting Al Capone’s sensational tenure as an inmate between 1929 and 1930; and pointing out locations used in movie shoots in the 1990s. Furthermore, it recognizes the power of the ruin itself to tell its historical narrative. As the Historic Structures Report describes,
The building complex remains supremely expressive, focusing attention on its central meanings dramatically, and as inescapably as it once confined its residents…it demonstrates the power of architecture as a socially ordering mechanism as almost no other building can; rarely is the public so aware of the penal policies that have been devised on its behalf…one vividly encounters issues specific to its past: the role of philanthropic action; the sequence of accommodations to other tides in Pennsylvania’s penal history, the evidence of emerging advances in building systems over time…insights into Philadelphia’s urban growth and diversification, into the changing state of medical knowledge, theories of social dysfunction, the treatment of minorities, and ultimately into human nature as exemplified in these populations under control and stress.
“Prisons make awkward landmarks”
As Herbert Muschamp observed, “prisons make awkward landmarks.” While other historic Philadelphia sites have more obvious narratives that they embody (such as freedom and self-governance at Independence Hall) Eastern State finds itself contending with far more troubling questions about the ways society deals with transgressors, how we engineer technologies to act on our bodies, and how we enable — and resist — certain kinds of expertise and power.
One of the ways that Eastern State tackles these questions is with a continuous series of art installations. By inviting contemporary artists to comment on what they find evocative about the prison, Eastern State encourages historical, political, and personal engagement from artists and visitors alike. Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens co-curated the exhibition “Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject,” asking, “How are objects, places, and stories imbued with history? What is the relationship between imagination, human experience, and the objective world… Our working hypothesis for this project is that artworks make connections that are both objectively valid and emotionally resonant.”
One of Eastern State’s longest-running installations is a tribute to those emotionally resonant creatures who colonized Eastern State in the absence of other inhabitants. Amid the wild growth that took over the site, a colony of feral cats made Eastern State their home between 1971 and 1991. They were looked after by Philadelphia city caretaker Dan McCloud, who visited and fed the animals three times a week for nearly thirty years. McCloud and his cats were memorialized by Linda Brenner’s “Ghost Cats” exhibition, for which she placed 39 sculptures throughout the cell blocks and grounds. Designed to crumble away over time, as buildings and memories do, the ghost cats were a reminder of the necessity of intervention; neither cat colonies nor castles survive without someone’s choice to maintain or remember them.
Brenner described her exhibition as “a testimony to survival.” The last ghost cat faded away in 2011.
Location: 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
Website: easternstate.orgDon’t Miss: “The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi; Al Capone’s jail cell; a series of History Exhibits and Artist Installations
Events: Bastille Day; The Searchlight Series; “Terror Behind the Walls”
Eastern State Penitentiary Learning Resources
Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens (ed.), Prison sentences: the prison as site, the prison as subject, Philadelphia: Moore College of Art and Design, 1995.
Charles Dickens, American Notes, New York: The Modern Library, 1996.
Norman Johnston (ed.), Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994
Marianna Thomas (ed.), “Eastern State Penitentiary: Historic Structures Report,” Philadelphia: Philadelphia Historical Commission, 2 vol., 1994.