Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Philadelphia, PA

A Spooky room in the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Scope: Interpretive Master Plan, Improving the Visitor Experience

Eastern State Penitentiary is considered the most influential prison ever built. Due to its international influence as the prototype for more than 300 prisons throughout the world, Philadelphia’s seminal prison became the nineteenth-century’s most imitated American building. Next to the concept of democratic government, its methods for penological reform are considered Philadelphia’s most important world export. In the end, however, the ideal of reforming prisoners into productive citizens turned out to be as elusive at Eastern State Penitentiary as it remains today. The site provides not only the opportunity to address abstract concepts like social reform and civic pride, but it also preserves the experiences, attitudes, and traditions of a unique facet of life in Philadelphia.

Today’s visitors come, compelled not by the long arm of the law, but because of their interest in and fascination with Eastern State’s stories. Focus group sessions have emphasized a particular interest in personal stories and details of individual lives of inmates and wardens, before, during, and after their time at the prison. The IS team’s approach to telling these stories centered on visitors exploring their own personal connections to the social, economic, and political issues embodied in the institution’s history, even as they enjoy the unique ambiance and pleasing “creepiness” of the buildings and grounds as they wander through the site.

The Interpretive Master Plan was developed as part of an overall Master Plan created for the historic site by Atkin Olshin Shade Architects, Philadelphia, PA.