A Model Prisoner

Finding a new raison d'etre for the old cell block.

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary is now a museum within a ruin

Credit: Albert Vecerka, 2001

After Eastern State Penitentiary opened in Philadelphia in 1829, it quickly became a model both for its innovative correctional system and its architecture. By 1971, the prison was abandoned, and the brooding, Medieval-looking structure was reduced to an empty shell with an uncertain future.

Since 1994 Eastern State has found a second life as a quirky prison museum, and its rebirth provides an answer to a vexing question that several communities have faced: what to do with a prison after the last inmate has left the big house?

Physical deterioration and the accompanying need for costly maintenance and repairs have put a number of prisons out of business. Changing correctional philosophies and the need for modern facilities played a role, too. What remains are massive buildings with limited reuse options.

"The big problem with adaptive reuse for these structures—and I'm mainly talking about the huge state prisons—is that they're constructed to be indestructible," says Morgan Grefe, a doctoral candidate at Brown University's American Civilization Department who's writing a book on prison museums. "It's difficult to remove the walls and make them anything except cells."

Al Capone spent eight months in this luxurious Eastern State cell, which has been restored to its 1929 appearance.

Credit: Tom Berault for Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 for its influential role in prison history, gained fame for introducing solitary confinement as a method of inmate reform. Its directors thought that deep solitude would engender soul searching and lead to penitence. And so a new word was born: penitentiary.

When it was built, the structure's system of running water and central heat (at a time when the White House still used chamber pots and coal burning stoves) made it the nation's first thoroughly modern building. Additionally, it introduced a wagon-wheel floor plan with cellblocks radiating from a central surveillance rotunda. Roughly 300 prisons worldwide modeled themselves after Eastern State. 

Cellblock 5, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Credit: Elena Bouvier, 1998

After the outmoded prison closed 32 years ago, the city of Philadelphia entertained several reuse and development proposals for the 11-acre site that included retail, residential, or a combination of both. Eventually, after it sat empty for two decades, the prison was re-opened as a museum. Attendance has steadily climbed and should reach about 70,000 this year. Inside, the crumbling cellblock walls have more peel than paint, and until a $1 million stabilization effort was completed last year, visitors had to wear hard hats because portions of the roofing were unstable.

Eastern State exists in a state of comfortable disrepair not unlike an Old World ruin. Such decayed chic is a big part of its charm, and museum directors believe it accentuates the museum's basic mission to chronicle the history of the trend-setting prison. They proudly maintain the structure as a stabilized ruin.

"It's akin to an abandoned castle in Europe," says program director Sean Kelley. "People don't go to European ruins and ask, 'What are you going to do with this place?' But they do here, and when they do, we tell them, 'We're doing it.'"

Given the enormous costs of renovating a vast structure whose 15 cellblocks cover an entire city block, Eastern State basically has little choice but to renovate only what's necessary for the museum.

Some prisons—particularly smaller county prisons—have been converted to restaurants, office buildings, and hotels. Many larger prisons, inspired by the success of Alcatraz Island, have taken the museum route. 

Alcatraz Island

Credit: NPS photo

Fueled in part by Hollywood, the rocky outpost in San Francisco Bay has become the iconic American penitentiary. As a prison museum, though, Alcatraz evolved almost by accident. After it closed in 1963 because of rising costs, no one was sure what to do with it. One idea called for turning the island into a theme park with a 49er gold-rush motif. After the National Park Service took over in 1972, it decided to open Alcatraz to the public for five years. It reasoned that that would be enough time to satisfy peoples' curiosity; after that, the island most likely would be abandoned to the birds and salt air.

Then a funny thing happened: Alcatraz became one of San Francisco's leading attractions, and the park service plans to invest about $20 million over the next 10 to 15 years to restore and maintain up to 90 percent of the island. "You'd be amazed at how many places say they're going to be the next Alcatraz," Grefe says. "People are fascinated by prisons because they're part of our society that we keep marginalized. Prison museums are a chance to safely experience the 'other side.'"

But turning an abandoned prison into a museum isn't a panacea. "If it doesn't have the historical importance of an Eastern State or the glamour of an Alcatraz, then what's your hook?" asks Grefe. "To be a tourist attraction, you need something to attract people, and that's a problem some prisons are experiencing." 

Tourists at Eastern State

Credit: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Several former prisons have become film stars by lending their ambience and gritty realism as backdrops to movie and television productions. Four films were shot at the former Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, including "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Air Force One."

Opened in 1896, the Ohio prison closed in 1990 after it no longer met federal prison codes. The state tore down some buildings on its 18-acre grounds in 1994, but the original main building, supposedly modeled after sketches of German castles, remains. With 250,000 square feet and roughly 950 cells, "there are serious maintenance issues," says Jan Urban-Demyan, the coordinator at the reformatory.

The state planned to demolish the entire structure because it didn't want to maintain it. Urban-Demyan's group, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, thought it was worth saving, and in 2000, they bought the property from the state for $1. A year later, the reformatory was chosen as a Save America's Treasures project.

The prison's renovation tab is estimated at $15 million, and, along with a local fundraising campaign, the society is trying to raise money from museum visitation fees and its popular Ghost Hunt tours. Urban-Demyan has advertised the prison as a movie set in a film-industry magazine but doesn't expect that to generate much cash.

Nonetheless, such arrangements can provide much-needed elbow grease. As part of the deal to allow the rock group Godsmack to film its music video for "Awake" three years ago, Urban-Demyan made a deal with their record company, Universal Records. "I told them I'd waive some of their daily fee if they'd do some work on the building," she says. The company restored 22 cells in the old cellblock.

Now, she says, "I offer that as an option to anyone who wants to film here."

Jeff Schlegel is a freelance writer in Yardley, Pa.  

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