Take a Walk Where You Never Want To Be
Philadelphia is a city full of attractions to tempt the tourist keen on experiencing the history of America’s birth. But once you’ve rapped your knuckles on the cool, smooth sides of the Liberty Bell; tread upon the creaky, wooden floors of Freedom Hall; and jingled the change in your pocket while watching thousands of coins per minute being stamped and rolled at the U.S. Mint its time to get down and dirty in the darker side of Philly.
Standing forbiddingly like a ramshackle, crumbling English castle, the Eastern State Penitentiary looms large in its mostly middle class neighborhood. In its heyday it must have been impressive indeed. Now, however, it has an eerily forlorn mood that sits about it like a cold, dark mantle. Even on our sunny, summer day the mood of this place rested heavily on your shoulders. It is hard to visit the dusty, paint-peeled halls and rusted, crusted cells and not feel at least in small part, a sense of what the prisoners in this place must have felt.
For a photographer that thrills at a gritty, industrial backdrop, this is the place to be. Aside from the other visitors, it’s hard not to point your camera and take amazing shot after amazing shot that won’t help but capture the mood of these wrecked walls that once held the wretched dregs of society.
A visit to the Pen can easily absorb most of the day. We only had a few hours on our trip so we were determined to make the most of it. We followed the guided tour, making the most of audio guides that worked flawlessly and let you move through the prison at your own pace. They’ve done a wonderful job of capturing the essence through sights and sound and storytelling. You don’t really get a full sense of the magnitude until you reach the rotunda, the central circle connecting all of the cell blocks. From here guards could keep an eye on all of the cells, doors, and prisoners.
When you visit, be sure to take the time to follow as many of the guided excursions as possible. These short (20 minutes or so) side tours take you into parts of the prison you couldn’t see otherwise. The kitchens, operating rooms, chaplain’s office, and punishment cells all have stories and sights to build on the already fascinating history of the penitentiary. Other “must see” points of interest include Al Capone’s cell, the watch towers, and the escape tunnel. Finally, look out for “hands-on history” exhibits throughout the history. You can scan the exercise yard looking for breakout attempts, open a cell (it’s trickier than it seems), or take the keys to the prison to open the main gates. Just be sure to keep your eye on the time and make a good plan or you’re likely to miss something.
Open every day 10 am to 5 pm
(last entry 4 pm)
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300
Visit http://www.easternstate.org/ for current times, prices, special events and schedules.