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Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary

Updated: October 8, 2021
 By Jenn H

After being abandoned for more than twenty years, the Eastern State Penitentiary is a building in ruins. When it was built, however, in 1829 this was one of the most expensive prisons in the world. Renowned for both it's architecture and it's strict style, it was designed by John Haviland - who was the architect for Independence Hall renovations, Franklin Institute and the Tombs in New York.

The original design for the prison, known as Cherry Hill at the time, consisted of seven single story cell blocks. Haviland used the dark and sullen Gothic style to instill fear to those on the outside. Laid out in a hub and spoke style, the entire prison was designed in way to maximize isolation.

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A true penitentiary, this was not a place for punishment but rather reflection and penance. Each cell had a small opening to pass through food and work. The enclosed exercise yards were used on a strict time schedule that kept prisoners from being out at the same time and when they were returned to their cells by a guarded escort, the prisoners had bags put over their heads so as not to be seen by other inmates. The doors to the cell required the men to bow as they entered and when they exited the long corridor was reminiscent of the nave of a church. The only light source was a skylight or small window, known as the "Eye of God."

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In keeping with the model of reformation, the warden was legally required to visit each prisoner daily and guards on a regular basis. To keep the men separate, each cell had a toilet - flushing toilets with running water faucets at that. It wasn't all bad in the prison.

They were allowed to garden and have pets - all in isolation, however. Al Capone had oriental rugs and a radio in his cell! Though to be fair his cherry home-like feel was not preferential treatment as his cell block in the prison's "Park Avenue" where other inmates had similar access.

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Today the prison is a museum, complete with recreation of Capone's cell. An admission ticket will get you a self-paced audio tour of the cemetery, interactive history exhibits where you can open a cell block door - just don't get locked inside- and art installations throughout the prison. If you're visiting in winter, there is a guided tour in lieu of the audio tour.

With a darker take on history, this is a great visit for families with children. Though it is not recommended for any kids under 7 years old. The children ticket even comes with a scavenger hunt!

Admission is un-timed so you can stay as long as you like. Most visitors spend 2 hours, but you can come and go that day as you please with proof of purchase. The audio tour is 35 minutes straight, with a few additional stops along the way.

Photography is welcome inside the Eastern State Penitentery. But beware, you might get more in your photo than expected. The prison is said to be haunted ... especially around Halloween.

About The Author

Jenn H

Jenn is a born Jersey girl that grew up “across the Ben” but has Philly in her heart and history in her blood. She went to Washington & Jefferson College in the Pittsburgh area. Yes her college mascots were two guys in white wigs! Jenn came back to Philly to get her M.A. in Museum Studies. Happily worked at the city history museum but came outside for some fresh air as a tour guide. Jenn has been part of the FTBF team since March 2011.
Updated: October 8th, 2021
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