Philadelphia Prison's Synagogue Opens for First Time
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Apr. 1, 2008
Although visitors can tour the massive Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, none of them have ever seen its synagogue, established in the 1920s and closed for the last 35 years.
Later this month, workers will begin restoring the room, planning to reopen it to the public for the first time as the Alfred Fleisher Memorial Synagogue in time for Yom Kippur in October.
Built in 1829, the penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark, has been open for tours since 1994. Most of the jail, which closed in the 1970s, is in a state of ruin, but some sections, including Al Capone's cell, have been restored.
Eight years ago, the prison won a $500,000 matching grant from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service.
Laura Mass, a graduate student in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, began her thesis on the jail's synagogue four years ago. Mass and a team of interns sifted through knee-high piles of debris—the room's collapsed ceiling—and unearthed pages of a song book, ornamentation from the plaster ceiling, and paint samples that will help guide the restoration project.
Eastern State's Synagogue Restoration Committee has raised $280,000 toward the synagogue's restoration but still hopes to raise $50,000 for exhibits.
"Lost Synagogue Weekend" is scheduled for April 5 and 6. To make a reservation for a 45-minute tour of the synagogue, call (215) 236-5111, ext. 14.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.