Jul 29, 2014

Day Tripper is Sending You to Jail

Eastern State Penitentiary offers tours of historic Pennsylvania prison.

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We know many Patch readers have been taking the column to heart and have been making visits to our suggested destinations.

But some of you haven’t.

Well, that cannot stand. So, for this week’s entry we’re sending the whole lot of you to jail ... to be more precise, you’re going to the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia. It's our "Day Tripper" pick of the week.


Estimated Travel Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Why it’s Worth the Trip:  How many times can you say you went to prison and were released the same day? How about adding in a visit to a historical monument and art exhibition as well? At Eastern State Penitentiary, you can.

How to Get There from Here: Detailed driving directions.

You’ll Probably Get Hungry: After all, it’s going to be bread and water for you for a good long while. You might as well get a decent meal before you turn yourself in. Head over to Fairmount Pizzeria, the all-American cuisine of Jack’s Firehouse, an upscale sit-down at the London Grill, a bit of the brew at the Belgian Café, or a hot cuppa joe at Mugshots Coffeehouse.

While you’re in the Area: As you might expect, there aren’t a ton of stores and parks set aside something as imposing as Eastern State Penitentiary, but there are a small list of exceptions: check out some hand-thrown pottery at Sandi and Neil’s Neighborhood Potters, or look through the unique wares of Ali’s Wagon, a home goods store that is a lot more personal than your average Bed Bath & Beyond.

Kelly Brooke Otterson, tour program manager for the Penitentiary, explained how tours for this notorious building came to be. “The first limited-basis, guided tours of Eastern State Penitentiary began in 1988 as part of an effort to raise public interest in the building.

"At the time, Eastern State’s future was uncertain and there was the hope that by raising awareness about the prison it would someday be preserved as a historic site rather than becoming a commercial development,” Otterson said. “Fortunately, efforts to save the building were successful and Eastern State Penitentiary officially opened as a historic site in 1994. During that inaugural year more that 10,000 visitors came to see the prison. Each year since, more and more visitors have come to see the prison’s grand architecture and to learn about the building’s unique and interesting history.”

One of Eastern State’s greatest qualities is its versatility and ability to interest different people for different reasons. “In any given day we have visitors coming to the prison for a variety of reasons,” Otterson said. “While many seem drawn to the prison because of its intriguing history and uniqueness among historic sites, others come to learn more about the architecture, take photographs, see where Al Capone once lived or visit the various art installations we have each year. And, of course, quite a few come just to experience the eerie atmosphere that the deteriorating and long-abandoned cellblocks create.”

Otterson described the task of preserving the Penitentiary, which is quite a balancing act. “One of the most important elements of preservation at Eastern State is having good roofs, which help to deter further deterioration by keeping the elements out. Fortunately, in the past several years, many of the cellblocks and other buildings have received new roofs through grants and donations. In fact, in 2011 Eastern State’s Annual Appeal focused on raising money to put toward a new roof for Cellblock 15, also known as Death Row.”
Yet there is more to be done to save a building like this, as Otterson further explained. “Our current Annual Appeal is focused on raising funds to work on the preservation of the prison’s Operating Room. On the 23rd of January, conservators will be conducting an archeological study of the space. Through their work, we will have a better understanding of the space and we will also be able to decide how to proceed with the conservation of various artifacts that were left in the room. Additionally, this project will allow us to take visitors into the Operating Room through our Hands On History program starting in April 2012. There is more information about this project on our website.”

Not all the cellmates were of the two-legged kind though, leading Otterson to describe one of the more humorous anecdotes attached to the prison. “I think that a lot of visitors are surprised to find out that one of Eastern State’s official inmates was a Black Labrador Retriever named Pep, who was sentenced to ”Life in Prison” in 1924 for the murder of a cat that belonged to Governor Pinchot’s wife. We have an image of Pep’s mugshot hanging at prison, and although the pup looks a bit guilty in the picture, there is some controversy surrounding the story. Some people think that Pep was framed so that the governor could send him to the prison to help boost inmate morale. Interestingly, there are programs today that pair inmates with dogs to help with rehabilitation and morale,” Otterson said. “Whatever the case, although he was eventually transferred from Eastern State to Graterford, Pep did serve life.”
When asked what materials guests might bring with them to the prison are appropriate, Otterson suggested that practicality is the wise choice. “The best advice I could give a visitor to Eastern State is to dress appropriately. The prison is a ruin with uneven flooring and no climate control, so what ever the weather is like outside, be prepared to experience that here. In the winter there are actually many days when the cellblocks are colder than the outside temperature.
“In my experience, it seems that no matter what you are interested in Eastern State has something to offer," she said. "This is my seventh season working here and the most common complaint I hear from exiting visitors is that they wished that they could have spent more time exploring.”

For more information, visit the website: http://www.easternstate.org/

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