PHILADELPHIA – It is a place that celebrates the liberating expression of architecture, outsider art and even Bastille Day street parties.
And it is a prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 on a former cherry orchard and housed prison escape artist “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone. The pen closed in 1971 and has been recast into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia. Visitors wander through a frozen ruin of crumbling cell blocks, vacant exercise yards, a lonley Death Row and the prison surveillance hub. The joint reopened for public tours in 1994 and is now billed as “America’s Most Historic Prison.”
I’ve been to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, and while you can’t picnic at Eastern State like you can at Alcatraz (operated by the National Park Service), the urban prison vibe cuts much deeper.
The original seven cell blocks spread like the rusty spokes of a broken wheel under vaulted sky-lit cells. The grandiose, neo-Gothic architecture was designed to reform criminals through strict isolation.
This was the the city of unbrotherly love.
Sally Elk is president and CEO of Eastern State. She admitted there were challenges in encouraging tourists to get up for the lock-down mode.
“First, its a negative site,” Elk said during a midsummer tour of the grounds. “The two exports in the early years of this country, after 1812, were independence and prison reform. Which would you rather see when you come to Philadelphia? Independence Hall or Eastern State Penitentiary?
“But Alcatraz led the way. The federal government didn’t want to open it up but they did and people kept coming. The same thing is true here, where people keep coming and we really haven’t reached our peak.” In 1994’s first year, 10,450 people toured Eastern State. There were 249,289 visitors in 2010.
Elk said, ”We program events around historical stories that happened here. We have an ‘Escape Weekend’ that’s very popular, we’ve had a ‘Riot Weekend’.”
The Eastern State alumni reunion brings back between 25 and 50 former employees – and inmates. “We have a barbecue where they socialize and then we open it up to the public where people talk about their lives here,” Elk said as her voice echoed down a corridor. “People are interested because it is something they don’t know about. If this were an operating prison it would be a completely different place. There would be the smell of people living here, there would be noise. As part of our training we go to operating prisons.
“This is a ruin. It is silent. It evokes a lot of imagination.”
I imagined about the now-forsaken Joliet Correctional Prison in Joliet.
Representatives from the City of Joliet have visited Eastern State to research the possibility of making the Joliet prison a similar tourist attraction. After all, the 1-year-old Independent League baseball team in Joliet is called the Slammers. “The prison has become quite a tourist attraction for us on Route 66,” said Ben Benson, director of marketing and communications for the City of Joliet.
The rub is that the State of Illinois still owns the prison, which closed in 2002.
“The City of Joliet is interested in acquiring the property but financial resources are not what they used to be,” Benson said.”We’re doing a full study on potential uses of the site. With a grant from a different division of the state, we have added about a dozen tourist kiosks because so many people come by because of the Blues Brothers lore. We had a Blues Brothers band come out and cover their songs on a stage set up in front of the prison. We look at it as our Alcatraz.
“I did take a trip to the Philadelphia site and the things they are doing at Eastern State we would love to emulate in Joliet. We just don’t own the site yet. It was appraised at $6.5 million a couple of years ago. Once they offered it to us for a buck and we had to turn them down because there’s asbestos issues in there, environmental lead issues from an old shooting range on the grounds.” The Stateville roundhouse is still in operation, about 10 miles north of what locals call “The Old Joliet Prison.”
Eastern State board member Dr. Norman Johnston began his career as a sociologist at the Joliet Correctional Prison, which opened in the 1850s. Inmates built the massive limestone walls from area quarries. More than 100 prisons across the world have been turned into tourist attractions, including South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
“We attract people interested in architecture, social justice, corrections, people interested in seeing ruins, people coming to see if there’s ghosts here,” Elk said.
Author Charles Dickens visited in 1842. “He came to see Niagara Falls and then Eastern State,” she said. “He cited it in [his 1842 travelogue] American Notes.”
President Andrew Jackson checked out the prison because of its high-tech marvels like central heat, running water and flush toilets in each cell that were part of the prison’s solitary set up since it opened. The White House didn’t even have those amenities during Jackson’s term (1829-37).
The prison is architecturally significant because John Haviland designed it for complete separate confinement. He also designed the big houses in New Jersey and Rhode Island. “His original conception was for 250 inmates,” Elk said. “When Al Capone was here it was 500. There was an overpopulation problem. The peak population was 1,700.” Eastern State pulled the plug on the solitary system in 1913. “Even though sentences were much shorter, two years typically, it is not in our human nature to be separated like that,” Elk said.
The prison tour begins with Capone’s cell, which by today’s standards looks like a Manhattan apartment. Capone and his bodyguard landed at Eastern in 1929. “He was considered a celebrity and allowed to furnish his own cell,” Elk said as she looked at Capone’s digs with a replica desk lamp, oriental rug and groovy paintings. “He was here for about nine months. He was recognized and arrested in Philadelphia carrying a gun. It was the first time he had been imprisoned so the judge gave him a one-year sentence for carrying a concealed weapon. His bodyguard was next door. They had been in Atlantic City. This was a priviliged area. It was called ‘Park Avenue’.”
During the 1800s inmates could enter their cell only through a small portal adjacent to an exercise yard. As the sun came up, the cell became more dim. Until 1903 prisoners were given burlap bag masks to wear over their heads so they could not see their way to their cell. In the early days the only visitors allowed were spiritual advisors and officials who helped inmates learn trades. Later, the prison added a small inmate-built synagogue, which is included in the tour. Eastern State closed in 1971 when upkeep of the old building became too much to handle.
The prime real estate in the historic Fairmount neighborhood immediately attracted a lot of attention. “There was a big fight to save it and that’s why it is what it is today,” Elk said. “This was one of the first neighborhoods to be gentrified from the city ring. It would have cost a lot of money to demolish it. There were proposals but every one required some demolition, but it became a national historic landmark.” The City of Philadelphia owns the site and public money was initially applied to the project for roofing work and to gain a certificate of occupancy for public safety.
Eastern State is a not-for-profit corporation that operates on an annual $4 million budget. Donors have included the Greater Philadelphia Marketing and Tourist Corp., the National Endowment for the Arts and Whole Foods. “The city listened to us and gave us chance to investigate what to do with this,” Elk said. “And the best thing that came out was a cultural site.”
FOR MORE on Lester Smith’s recently uncovered biblical murals at Eastern State, please visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra