My first time at Eastern State Penitentiary was in 1994, not long after the decrepit prison was opened to the public for the first time since 1971. The decay was so fresh that guests were required to wear hardhats. I had never heard the term "Preserved State of Decay" until my first tour of Eastern State. It conjures up images of rusted industrial equipment frozen in time and abandoned churches that still stand as a testament to respectful communities. In all, it represents what I love about Philadelphia. While many cities would choose to restore even their most sinister landmarks, and employ marketing strategies to build their urban landscape around the appeal of the status quo, Philadelphia routinely chooses to embrace it's grit. We've never been clean, we've never been polished, and that is reflected in the choice to retain Eastern State as it is.
From its creation in 1829, it was a dark institution where every criminal was forced into solitary confinement. As the first of its kind, the famed prison attracted a visit by Charles Dickens, who wrote of it, "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." Outside their cells the inmates wore masks and were not allowed any contact with the world, not even with other inmates or guards. The Quaker philosophy of the prison prohibited physical abuse, so the prison became creative in its psychological punishment, often withholding necessities such as food or warmth, or employing even more bizarre tactics that would make Marie Antoinette blush.
Today Eastern State looms over the Fairmount neighborhood above Center City Philadelphia. The granite stained with almost 200 years of industry, blight, and rebirth. From outside the walls one may expect a museum that recites the history of the institution, offering tourists a five minute lock-in, and impeccably restored cell blocks. That wouldn't be very Philadelphian, and it certainly doesn't befit the history of Eastern State Penitentiary. Instead, what you will find is a handful of restored cells, several markers explaining what you are seeing, constantly changing art exhibits mostly inspired by the macabre surroundings, and lots of rotting wood, peeling paint, dust, rust, dirt, and nightmares. Even the cell that once held Al Capone, with the exception of the luxuries representing those brought to him by corrupt guards (including plush furniture and a radio), the room itself has not been touched or cleaned.
But it isn't all a dreary reminder of crime, abuse, and abandonment. One of my favorite art exhibits, and perhaps Eastern State's only permanent fixture is Linda Brenner's Ghost Cats. For 28 years, Dan McCloud cared for Eastern State's only inhabitants during it's decades of abandonment. As the shrubs and trees began to eat away at the stone and concrete, and nature began to reclaim its own, three times a week McCloud would go to the prison and feed a colony of stray cats that had begun to call this land their own. Brenner's Ghost Cats consists of 39 simple sculptures throughout the grounds all in uniquely feline poses, paying homage to McCloud and his cats.
The normal yearly tour will take visitors on an audio journey recorded by Steve Buscemi, in which you may explore the ruins at your own pace. Once complete, visitors are free to roam the grounds on their own, exploring nearly every nasty cranny of the hauntingly peaceful edifice. The winter tour is limited to small groups led by tour guides and because of the weather, all guests must remain with the tour guide. If you choose this, go when it snows and bundle up. And of course, every Halloween Eastern State Penitentiary hosts Terror Behind the Walls, consistently ranked as one of the country's best Halloween attractions. It's fun scary, not gross scary, and certainly worth your money. Although if one chooses to visit Eastern State on Halloween, I strongly suggest returning for the self guided tour. Even if you don't see any ghosts or goblins, you will be haunted.
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