Sunday, March 6: This morning, we take a walk near our hotel in what is affectionately called Philadelphia’s Gayborhood. We didn’t initially know we had booked our hotel in this area, but of course it didn’t matter to us one way or the other. I thought it quite interesting that a whole neighborhood had such a matter-of-fact name.
We are in search of breakfast. Less than a block away we find what looks like the perfect little diner. It is so perfect, in fact, that it has a long line and a correspondingly long wait. As we want to squeeze in several sights this morning before heading home, we stop at the only place that can seat us right away, an IHOP. I savor a stack of fluffy pancakes, an indulgence I don’t allow myself often!
After breakfast, we walk around for a couple of blocks, return to our hotel, pack up and check out. Mike retrieves our car from the parking garage and we head to our first destination, Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world but today is a place of crumbling ruins, disheveled cells and haunting guard towers.
The prison was operational from 1829 to 1971, and housed such criminals as “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.
The prison’s innovative wagon wheel design became a model for nearly 300 prisons worldwide. Seven cell blocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Today, it is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and its museum is open seven days a week, twelve months a year, except for a few holidays.
It’s fascinating to walk through the hallways that branch out like the arms of an octopus, and to peek into the open cells to imagine the isolated existence of the inmates, who were held in solitary confinement.
Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system” or separate system, encouraged solitary confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation (Wikipedia: Eastern State Penitentiary). The goal of such a “penitentiary” was that of penance by the prisoners through silent reflection upon their crimes and behavior, as much as that of prison security (Wikipedia: Separate system).
Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack on a security guard. Others have explained the small doors forced the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, suggesting to the prisoners that God was always watching them (Wikipedia: Eastern State Penitentiary).
According to History of Eastern State, Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill-treatment. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.
It was a pure vision by British-born architect John Haviland, placing each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. A private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall sat adjacent to each cell. Haviland employed 30-foot, barrel-vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout, creating a church-like atmosphere. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval Gothic facade, built to intimidate; it ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls (History of Eastern State).
Chicago’s most famous mob boss, Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, spent eight months at Eastern State in 1929-1930. Arrested for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon, this was Capone’s first prison sentence. His time in Eastern State was spent in relative luxury. His cell on the Park Avenue Block had fine furniture, oriental rugs, and a cabinet radio (Eastern State Penitentiary: Notable Inmates).
Here’s a peek into his cell.
It’s a sad but photogenic place to walk around, especially on such a gray day. It’s quite depressing to imagine a life of isolation in such a place.
Though we can see in some of the cells, most of them remain off-limits and filled with original rubble and debris from years of neglect.
In one cell is an artist’s installation: Greg Cowper’s Specimen. The artist drew his inspiration from the collection of eighteen species of butterflies and moths — some quite rare — gathered by an Eastern State Penitentiary prisoner living in solitary confinement. One hundred twenty years later, the artist returned to the cellblocks to expand on the prisoner’s collection. He has collected and displays here more than 500 specimens, representing more than 150 species of insects and invertebrates, all captured on the penitentiary grounds.
By the 1960s, the aged prison was in sad disrepair. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the prison for tours (History of Eastern State).
After our tour of the prison, we walk down toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art, walking by this sprawling mural.
We find a beautiful church across from the museum.
Many people who visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art don’t set foot inside, and we are numbered among them. We don’t really have time to go inside and we don’t want to be rushed through. The museum, founded in 1876, has a 225,000 object collection and 80 period rooms covering 2,000 years of creativity. We’ll have to return another time.
Today, we mainly drop by to see the bronze statue of Rocky Balboa, from the 1976 movie Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone as a fictional Philly boxer.
Of course, we also have to walk up the Rocky steps, where Rocky sprinted up in the movie, stretching his arms out at the top.
We also admire the view atop the granite hill to the Eakins Oval, punctuated by a uniformed George Washington atop a horse. Beyond it, down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is City Hall.
The AMOR statue in front extends the theme of Philly’s reputation as the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Finally, we head back toward our car, passing the 40-foot-high painted steel sculpture Iroquois, a sculpture by Mark di Suvero. Born in Shanghai, China, he emigrated to the United States in 1941, when he was 8 years old. The artist created the sculpture to honor Native Americans, and its central knot shape and brilliant red color suggests a Chinese influence.
Finally, we head back near the prison where we parked, first stopping at a sandwich shop to grab some lunch, and drive the three hours back home. It was a great belated birthday weekend for Mike, despite the lingering winter weather. 🙂