This is Eastern State Penitentiary, thought to be the first building designed to inspire regret in the hearts of its inmates. Inmates spent all their time alone, in spaces with sunlit arches, decorative detail, 35′ barrel vaulted ceilings, and over 1000 skylights. Eastern State was a model for nearly 300 other prisons, representing a new kind of prison, where inmates could spend all their time in self reflection in order to become penitent (hence penitentiary). From 1829 to 1971 it was an active prison; solitary confinement was phased out in 1913.
This remarkably soulful structure opened as a museum in 1994, and for nearly 10 years visitors had to wear hard hats and sign release waivers in order to enter. It’s a favorite of filmmakers (12 Monkeys, Transformers 2), photographers, and of course, ghost hunters.
Staffer Fran Dolon gave us a wonderful tour during AAM, showing us the “stabilized ruin” that is Eastern State.
They have a regular schedule of artists’ installations (several are chosen each year from dozens of proposals). This is one of 9 Ghost Cats left, an installation by artist Linda Brenner that paid tribute to the scores of feral cats who lived here.
Great interpretation introduces inmates’ stories.
The staff at Eastern State are incredibly inventive with programming ideas, including Bastille Day (a local restauranteur dresses up as Marie Antoinette and tosses hundreds of locally made TastyCakes off the wall to the crowd below), and their annual Haunted House: Terror Behind the Walls. This event—with 1 year-round FT staffer—runs for 27 nights, draws 100,000 people, and was named Best Haunted House in America by AOL last year. Oh, and it netted the museum $1.7 million in 2008. They’ve dedicated a portion of the building to it, have hardwired in sound, video, and smoke and use 130 actors each night. They let us walk through a section during our tour (sound and smoke, no actors). Some people refused to walk through in the daylight. So yes, it’s effective!
Tip of the day: What unique attributes of your site or its history can be mined for creative programming?