Last month, I got to spend a few days in Philadelphia. Usually you don’t think “hey, I should visit an abandoned penitentiary!” when you visit Philly, but you’d be remiss if you skipped over this historic site.
Located just a few miles from Independence Hall, Eastern State Penitentiary is a world away in terms of a tourist experience. Eastern State Pen was a fully functioning prison from 1829 until 1971 but is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark offering tours to the public.
The prison, with cell blocks laid out like a wagon wheel, was revolutionary for its time due to the focus on penitence and reform, rather than punishment. Each individual’s cell included a skylight known as “God’s eye” – an eye that was always watching you.
One thing to note is that visitors are free to wander the grounds, but that there is an audio tour included in your admission narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.
Speaking of admission, it is important to note that Eastern State Pen is not free to visit. There was a very adamant couple behind us in line who insisted that it was free admission and that they shouldn’t have to pay to get in. According to the staff member at the door and others that we encountered at the audio tour desk, it is not and never has been free admission.
Ok, so if it is an abandoned ruin, then why charge admission to get in? Funds collected via admission prices are used to preserve Eastern State Pen as a stabilized ruin. According to an event description on the Eastern State Pen site, “When a group of architects, preservationists and historians came together to save Eastern State Penitentiary from redevelopment, they knew a monumental task lay before them. In the years that it sat abandoned, the penitentiary became overrun by plant growth, suffered extensive water damage, and fell prey to vandalism. Complete restoration would be far too costly, and it wouldn’t honor the full history of the site, including the eerie beauty of those years when it looked more like an urban forest than a prison.”
So it was decided to use a stabilized ruin approach to ensure that the site would remain a preserved landmark and a testament to history.
One historical factoid to note is that Al Capone was a guest at Eastern State Pen for eight months in 1929-1930. His prison cell was refurbished to what is was like during that time, right down to the music playing from the record player. As you can see from my short video below, his cell was much nicer in terms of furnishings than what basic prisoners were offered.
You can learn more about Eastern State Pen at their website at https://www.easternstate.org.