Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Date added:November 23, 2009 Categories: Pennsylvania Gothic Revival Prison
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
 Additional Information
  • Built: 1823-1829
  • Status: Abandoned
  • Abandonded: 1970
  • Location: 21st Street and Fairmount Avenue
  • City: Philadelphia
  • County: Philadelphia
  • State: Pennsylvania

The Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the prime exponent of the Pennsylvania system of imprisonment,, a system which was of limited influence in the United States, but was studied and applied widely in Europe and South America. This system, developed primarily by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1787, was grounded in the Quaker concept of reflection in solitude as well as an abhorrence of the 18th century practice in Philadelphia of sentencing all offenders to public hard labor. In 1821, the state legislature appointed a building commission to oversee the construction of a 250-cell prison, based on the principle of solitary confinement. After a public competition for the design of the prison, won by; John Haviland, in 1823, the cornerstone was laid. Haviland's plan called for seven cellblocks radiating out of a common center, all enclosed by massive stone walls resembling medieval battlements. Each solitary cell had its own exercise yard and its own ventilation and lighting vent representing great improvements over previous prison facilities. The first prisoner was admitted in 1829, and for the next 85 years, with many enlargements and additions, the prison implemented the system of solitary confinement. In 1913 the system was abolished, and some 50 years later the penitentiary was closed. Today, it still stands at 21st and Fairmount Avenue, presenting much the same appearance as did in 1829.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which was built to apply the Pennsylvania System of imprisonment, served as a model for numerous other prisons throughout the world. Although of limited influence in the United States, the prison and the Pennsylvania System influenced, and continue to influence, penalogical practices in Europe, Asia, and Latin Americia.

The Pennsylvania System, which development led to the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, resulted from a movement in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution to improve conditions in prisons. Prominent in the struggle to end the barbaric treatment of prisoners were Dr. Benjamin Rush, and the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which was founded on May 8, 1787. Influenced somewhat by certain prison methods in Europe, the Society, nevertheless, largely developed on its own the idea that became the heart of the Pennsylvania System, solitary confinement. As early as April 1790, the Society succeeded in persuading the Commonwealth's legislature to provide for solitary confinement cells at the Walnut Street Prison. The cells were constructed, but the great number of prisoners in the jail prevented the rigid application of solitary confinement. Moreover, the other important aspect of the Pennsylvania System, that the prisoners should work, never was applied. Despite the setback at the Walnut Street Prison, the Society continued to press for the broad adoption of its plan, and in 1801 memorialized the legislature to build a prison that would be based on solitary confinement. Some 20 years later, the legislators finally appropriated $100,000 for the erection of a prison at Philadelphia based on the idea of solitary confinement. No provision was made at first apropos the idea that the inmates should work, but the legislature had accepted that idea by April 1829, just before the first prisoner entered the new prison.

The commission responsible for constructing the prison realized that the philosophy behind its erection, solitary confinement, demanded a new design. A competition was held, and John Haviland, already a successful architect, won the $100 premium when his design was selected on May 24, 1822 Perhaps;the plan for the prison's exterior stimulated the commission to choose Haviland's design, for the architect's drawing of the exterior certainly reflected the commission's requirement that
"The exterior of a solitary prison should exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery that awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls."

It was within the interior, however, that Haviland's design achieved real significance. He provided for a central rotunda from which radiated seven cell blocks, each block containing solitary confinement cells. Even if Haviland had been influenced by some radial prison designs in Europe, the English-born architect gave that concept its fullest and best realization. Furthermore, in his design, Haviland provided notable improvements in light, heat, ventilation, and space in the cells. All in all, Haviland's design Represents an excellent example of the architectural application of a philosophical point of view and it is not strange that his prison was to be widely copied, especially, as it was far in advance of the usual prison of his time.