The Neighborhood of Fairmount
Philadelphia's Art Museum Area
The dark, imposing edifice planted solidly here on Fairmount Avenue is the Eastern State Penitentiary. Most residents of the area simply refer to it as "The Prison". But don't worry, it's been closed since 1970, and there are no longer any inmates living inside.
If you are in the area, you might decide to take the tour of the building. You may take a virtual tour by visiting the Prison's website.
The building was designed by John Haviland and completed in 1829. The walls are about 30 feet tall and are about thirteen feet thick at ground level. There is only one door to enter and leave the structure. With guard houses atop each of the four corner towers, there is no doubt that this was built for security.
The interior design reflected the new ideas in prison reform during the early 19th century. It was believed that a lack of order and discipline in one's childhood could lead to a life of crime. A structured environment, along with honest work and the absence of any bad influences, would in time lead to rehabilitation. So, all prisoners were placed in solitary confinement and expected to learn a profitable skill.
Inside, there is a central rotunda with an observation tower. Originally,
seven cellblocks radiated out from the rotunda giving guards a clear view
of each corridor. Each prisoner was housed in an 8 feet by 12 feet cell,
which contained a bed, toilet, and water faucet. The cells were attached
to individual exercise yards surrounded by tall fences. This isolated
the inmates from each other, and hopefully, served to prevent them from
communicating with each other. The prisoners would spend their time working
on whatever career they had chosen for themselves.
The new style was so popular that the Eastern State Penitentiary became an attraction. Other countries would send representatives here to observe and gather ideas. The Prison and the Niagara Falls were the two landmarks Charles Dickens wanted to see most during his 1842 visit to the United States.
The most famous inmate was probably Al Calpone, who was here for a few months in the 1930's. There were also several escape attempts, some successful. In 1832, the prison baker grabbed all of the warden's silverware and scaled down the wall using a rope. Three prisoners escaped through the sewer system in the 1870's.
The famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, led an escape attempt in the 40's. He and a friend dug a tunnel under the front wall. The tunnel ended in the raised terrace near 22nd and Fairmount Ave. However, the prisoners who used the tunnel for their escape were captured by passing policemen.
To make a long story short, the prison grew and grew. The ideas about prison reform changed, and the prisoners were grouped together. Eventually, the prison became overcrowded. It also became harder and harder for the state to maintain the structure. The State officially closed the prison in 1970. Philadelphia used it to hold some prisoners in 1971, but since then, it has not been used.
The city bought the penitentiary from the state, and several plans were developed for its use. The plans were either too costly or would destroy too much of the historical and architectural value of the place. Tours began in 1988, and recently, the city handed control of the tours over to the Prison Society.
The local neighbors, along with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, began to plant flowers on the terrace several years ago. This Ribbon of Gold added a touch of beauty to an otherwise bleak facade. The idea has grown, and now, there is a park on the North side and the Corinthian Avenue side of the Prison.
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