Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Eastern State Penitentiary housed its last inmates in 1971. Since then, it's become a destination for visitors, art, and prison-era reunions.
Inside Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood sits a 185-year-old prison that stopped housing inmates more than four decades ago. Yet it's hardly forgotten. Today, it's better known as a tourist attraction and a historic landmark.
Built in 1829 when the neighborhood was still a rural suburban district, the Eastern State Penitentiary spent 142 years of its life hosting tens of thousands of prisoners. With a unique hub-and-spoke layout and programming that focused on reforming inmates, in its early years Eastern State gained an international reputation. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, along with travel companion and prison reformer Gustave de Beaumont, visited the facility. Impressed with its then-innovative solitary confinement approach, they reported back to the French government:
Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness."
Charles Dickens saw it quite differently after his 1842 visit, writing, "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." The penitentiary, mostly due to overcrowding issues, officially stopped placing inmates in solitary confinement in 1913.
Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, its inmates replaced by a colony of feral cats for 20 years while the building sat in a preserved but ruinous state. Since then, the former prison has starred in various films and TV shows. After a string of renovations, it has become a neighborhood tourism anchor, hosting art installations (including a tribute to those cats) and guided tours. The building saw 300,000 visitors last year.
The facility also hosts reunions for its former inmates, staff, and guards. Held since 1992, the most recent gathering took place last month. One executive from the group that runs the building told Reuters after the latest alumni event, "there is absolutely no way to tell the officers from the inmates," adding, "they literally slap each other on the back."
Top image: A visitor wanders through block 7 of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Mark Makela)