Skip to content

Eastern State Penitentiary

March 2, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary was the United States’ first penitentiary, an ominous fortress of a building erected in Philadelphia in 1829. Eastern State is now a museum, and is in the same state it was found in after being abandoned. There are no plans to repair it, instead the prison is preserved in ruin.

Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through “confinement in solitude with labor,” Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary’s wagon-wheel, or “radial” floor plan.

Some of America’s most notorious criminals were held in the Penitentiary’s vaulted, sky-lit cells, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone. After 142 years of consecutive use, Eastern State Penitentiary was completely abandoned in 1971, and now stands, a lost world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers.

1855 etching of the seven-cell block design

1971 Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary. During Eastern State Penitentiary’s 142 years in operation, buildings were continually being squeezed in between Architect John Haviland’s original seven cellblocks. By the time Eastern State closed, the prison had grown to 15 cellblocks and there was virtually no remaining open space in the ten and acre Penitentiary Complex. This plan shows the building as it looked when it closed in 1971.

As read in Atlas Obscura:

“Compared to other facilities, Eastern State was a technological marvel and, at a cost of $800,000, one of the most expensive building projects of its day. At a time when President Andrew Jackson was still using a chamber pot, prisoners in Eastern State had their own private toilets. Inmates were served three hearty meals a day (usually boneless beef, pork, or soup and unlimited potatoes) and had their own private exercise areas. The cells each had skylights so that the divine wisdom of God might shine down upon those inside. In essence, Eastern State was a paradise compared to other prisons of the time. But despite all its material comforts, this “paradise” drove men mad.”

Some months ago, we wrote a post about The Architecture of Fear [in Spanish], but the reflection keeps the same: How architects use and manage space to induce fear. At the wiki, the architecture of the Penitentiary is described with these words: “The design for the penitentiary which Haviland devised became known as the hub-and-spoke plan which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cell blocks, each containing two ranges of large single cells—8 x 12 feet x 10 feet high- with hot water heating, a water tap, toilet, and individual exercise yards the same width as the cell. To minimize the opportunities for communication between inmates Haviland designed a basic flush toilet for each cell with individual pipes leading to a central sewer which he hoped would prevent the sending of messages between adjacent cells”

These are shared principles with the panopticon design: incommmunication, imposition of authoritarian power and desolation to create vulnerability and fear to maintain control over the prisoners.

Caption: Cells for those on death row

Virtually all prisons designed in the nineteenth century, worldwide, were based on one of two systems: New York State’s Auburn System, and the Pennsylvania System embodied in the Eastern State Penitentiary. During the century following Eastern’s construction, more than 300 prisons in South America, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and across the British Empire were based on its plan.

Charles Dickens recounts his 1842 visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in his travel journal, American Notes for General Circulation. The chapter is titled “Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison:”

“In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing…. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye, […] and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

By the 1960’s, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994, and, in 1997, signed a twenty-year agreement with the City to operate the site. A new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001.


More info at the Eastern State Penitentiary web-site.

A complete photo-set by Curious Expeditions , here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 3:11 am

    They also have a heck of a scary Halloween tour if I remember


  1. Michigan Central Station–Holey Moley. « A Connecticut Yankee Out West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: