Something has to be First/Entering a Fortress

Side Wall of Eastern State Penitentiary
Side Wall of Eastern State Penitentiary

Let’s create a little atmosphere first, shall we? It’s a broad stony wall pitted with greenery and reminiscent of a medieval fortress.  I’m sure if you pick a particular point you’ll realize that the wall is all you can see in either direction–despite the rows of restaurants in front of you. At night its a little creepy, with crevices and corners for shadows to conceal themselves in…..and its enough to make your skin crawl.

This weekend I went to Philadelphia to visit a friend from graduate school who works at Eastern State Penitentiary. Let me say from the outset that I had heard how amazing this place was–and the website does do a good job of setting the stage, but nothing prepared me for actually being there.

Eastern State was a working prison from the mid 19th century through to 1970. In 1994 it reopened as a museum and has been doing well ever since. It is best known for its annual Terror Behind the Walls haunted house which boasts all sorts of spectacular scary stuff.

While we were there my friend got to talking about the popularity of “Dark Tourism”, or tourism to epi-centers of grief and suffering. This means–Battlefields, Concentration Camps, Dungeons, and of course, Prisons. I’ll be the first to admit that I must have mentioned just how cool Eastern State was about 50 time during my 2 hour tour–and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with the broader stories that are being told here. While partially about architecture and the attempt to build a prison where everyone could be seen from a central point, but it also revealed the beliefs of the architects toward reformation and the human condition.

Charles Dickens visited Eastern State at one point and walked away unimpressed–this is from chapter seven of his American Notes (quotation is from the six page history provided on the Eastern State website).

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.

Of course visiting a place like Antietam is a little different from Eastern State–we travel to hallowed ground because those deaths are honorable, having occurred for a cause greater than themselves. At Eastern State it is a little different–Al Capone stayed here, and there were magnificent escape attempts and a very serious riot during the 1960s.

So go visit! My favorite area? The newly rehabilitated Synagogue–where the walls prior to rehab are cleverly hidden behind matching wooden panels.

Check out my Philadelphia Picassa Slideshow–later this week I’ll bring you a quick post my trip through Food.

Also: Here is my blog post from the PreservationNation.org Blog which looks at things a little differently.

Eastern State Penitentary and Philly
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2 thoughts on “Something has to be First/Entering a Fortress

  1. Hi Priya! You know what’s funny, is that in all my years of living in South Jersey, just 15 minutes or so from Philadelphia, I have never actually been to Eastern State. But it’s really cool to read what you have to say about it and see your pictures of it! 🙂 Sounds like it’s a pretty neat place to check out; maybe I’ll have to do it whenever I’m back in that area.

  2. Eastern State Pen is AWESOME. I went there on my own one day last fall. I love the art installations and the audio tour. The place alone is amazing…the ruin…the layers literally peeled back before your eyes.

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