Given the chaotic churn of Philadelphia’s real-estate market and the rate at which old buildings and whole neighborhoods are being torn down or transformed, the pace of change inside Eastern State Penitentiary is something to savor.
This month—nearly 200 years after it was built, 45 years after it was closed as a prison, and 23 years after it reopened for tours—the penitentiary finally opens its hospital block to the public. In prior years, visitors were kept out of the medical wing, one of the seven spokes around the penitentiary’s central hub, because it had deteriorated and was unsafe. But after a $220,000 restoration and stabilization, Cellblock Three is now open.
In a press preview last week, Eastern State tour guide Matt Murphy showed off the wing’s features. They include a solarium and hydrotherapy rooms for tuberculosis patients, an operating room, a pharmacy, a psychiatric department, and a few of the same small, dread-inducing solitary cells for which the penitentiary is famous. Initially used for housing prisoners, the wing was fully dedicated to healthcare by the end of the 19th century, Murphy said. Fifteen-minute tours of the wing will now be included with a general admission ticket.
The stuff on view is cool enough on its own terms, and if you haven’t been to the penitentiary in a while, it’s a museum that rewards revisiting. But if you think of it as an act of historic preservation—on a 10-acre property in one of the city’s most competitive neighborhoods—the slow evolution of Eastern State Penitentiary is downright miraculous. According to the institution’s official history, Mayor Frank Rizzo proposed demolishing it in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority looked into converting the building for commercial use. It took a group of advocates and an infusion of philanthropic money to secure the building’s future—which is to say, its past.
“We’re always changing the building,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of public programming at Eastern State, after the tour ended. “But whenever possible, we always ask ourselves, ‘Do we have to do this?’ And if the answer is that we don’t have to do it, then we don’t. We like the building feeling like a ruin. We find that our visitors really respond to it. And we can’t fix the whole thing anyway. It’s massive.”
Present and future voices
On the morning of the press preview, Kelley was in high spirits. For one thing, Eastern State had recently learned that its latest exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration (reviewed here by Treacy Ziegler), had been awarded in Excellence in Exhibitions by the American Alliance of Museums, one of the highest honors a museum can receive. For another, as of that day, the facility finally had flushing toilets.
“Our next big push is for visitor amenities,” Kelley said. “There’s a gorgeous, gorgeous auditorium on this property. It’s spectacular. And it’s not even safe to walk into. But it hasn’t been used since 1970. It can seat 250 people. It has a stage. It has a big, high, arched ceiling. It’s all hand-painted. It’s a knockout.”
What’s the timeline for that project? Undetermined.
“I’m 48 years old,” Kelley said. “I swear to God, someday, I’m going to introduce a speaker in that space. I’m going to live to do that.”
In the neighborhoods surrounding the penitentiary, development pressures are rapidly transforming the landscape. Behind the prison walls, time moves more slowly – and, in some ways, backward.