The Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is a former American prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is located on 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia and was operational from 1829 until 1971. The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment.
Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its unique wagon wheel design. When the building was erected it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark, which is open to the public as a museum for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year 10 am to 5 pm.
The Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historic site, open year-round. Guided tours are offered during the winter, and during the warmer months, self-guided tours are also available (narrated mainly by Steve Buscemi, with former guards, wardens and prisoners also contributing). In addition, it holds many special events throughout the year. Each July, there is a Bastille Day celebration, complete with a comedic reinterpretation of the storming of the Bastille and the tossing of thousands of Tastykakes from the towers, accompanied by a cry of "let them eat Tastykake!" from an actress portraying Marie Antoinette. The facility has been kept in "preserved ruin", meaning no significant attempts have been made at renovations or restoration.
Art exhibits :
- Ghost Cats — When the prison closed in 1971, a colony of cats lived inside. When restoration began, the cats were captured and neutered, thus causing them to eventually die off. Artist Linda Brenner sculpted 39 cat sculptures, which surround the property. The sculptures were purposefully made of a material that slowly dissolves over time to represent the inevitable natural decay that faces all living things.
- The End of the Tunnel — Hundreds of feet of red piping were installed by artist Dayton Castleman representing paths of escape routes used by prisoners.
- Recollection Tableaux — Six dioramas were sculpted by artist Susan Hagen to represent important moments in the prison's history. They are scattered around cell block seven.
- GTMO — A replica of a Guantanamo Bay detention camp cell was set up by artist William Cromar inside one of the cells.
- Midway of Another Day — A metal sundial set up to show "the passing of time" by Michael Grothusen in the courtyard of cell block one.
- I always wanted to go to Paris, France — Artist Alexa Hoyer set up three TVs, one in a cell, one in a hallway, and one in a shower room, showing seven decades of prison films. The title "I always wanted to go to Paris, France" is a quote taken from one of the film excerpts screened in the prisoner's cell.
- Juxtaposition — Brothers Matthew and Jonathan Stemler divided cell #34 in cell block 11 horizontally. A grid at the ceiling supports a display of suspended plaster pieces along a single plane. Ground mica schist poured onto the floor softens the step and enhances the texture of the space, while a bench provides a vantage point in which to view and consider the overall effect of the piece.
- My Glass House — An ongoing project set up by artist Judith Taylor by taking black and white pictures of natural habitat found in the prison's walls. The prints are then turned into glass, and replace the missing glass in the greenhouse in the courtyard of cell block one.
- Living Space — Created by Johanna Inman and Anna Norton, Living Space consists of five videos containing time-lapse photographs of the ways Eastern State Penitentiary is altered by the changes of weather and light. The artists put their cameras in places that make Eastern State Penitentiary unique to capture the subtle ways nature plays upon the structure of the building. The goal was to create photographs which are contemplative. By allowing the public to see the gradual effects of time upon specific places, growth and decay are recognized and explored as components that make Eastern State Penitentiary a more living space.
- Purge Incomplete — Mary Jo Bole’s exhibit will explore the history of plumbing at the penitentiary. Interestingly, the building had running water before the White House did. Consisting of sculptural pieces made of resin, brass, and frosted glass, Bole’s designs are modeled after John Haviland’s original design for the plumbing at Eastern State Penitentiary. The exhibit will include views of the plumbing from the vantage point of those residing or working at the prison, including that of the prisoners, prison guards, and the manufacturers of the plumbing. Additionally, the exhibit will showcase the sculptures as having both opaque and translucent factors, in which the translucent parts will glow within the cells.
- Philly Artblog — Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof, publishers and editors of one of America's top art blogs, visited the Eastern State Penitentiary's art exhibits and documented them on video.