This is part of an ongoing series exploring overlooked items in local museum collections. If you’d like to suggest a museum to visit, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At once stately and imposing, Eastern State Penitentiary looms large over the Fairmount neighborhood, a stone citadel that can be driven around and strolled past but not ignored. In winter, when the skies are gray and the shrubbery is bare, photos of the place seem black and white. Now, freshly planted tulips add a splash of color to the exterior, and patches of grass have sprung up in the yards within its walls.
Like all prisons, Eastern State is a dystopian novel made real. It was built in 1829 around the conceit that solitude leads to penitence. Inmates were brought in with bags over their heads and never permitted to interact. Anybody caught trying to converse through the thick cell walls was punished.
Like all dystopias, this one was doomed — by human nature, by overcrowding, by changing times. And so the place went through several gradual metamorphoses. Cellblocks were added, rec yards were removed. Now it’s a museum unstuck in time, forced to consider which parts get preserved and which get restored.
One of the people peeling back layers of the past is Liz Trumbull, ESP’s manager of historic preservation and architectural conservation. She recently led me on a tour with one eye on rarely considered aspects and another on the many ways the museum tries to keep the schist-and-mortar walls upright.
“Sanitarium white” is the prevailing color in Eastern State, but there once was variation: A pair of 1935 photos from the Evening Bulletin show cells flaunting ornate, large-scale murals on their rear walls. One set in a faux-wood frame depicts a woman in a white gown holding her sun hat at her side while descending a garden path. The other is simple country scene with a floral arch and a cottage on the far side of a high wall. It’s likely both were painted by inmates.
Researchers were left puzzling over the whereabouts of these cells for decades until recently. While attempting to remove some corroded wire lath beneath the plaster in a cell close to the prison’s main hub, they discovered more than 20 layers of paint — and lots of different colors, too.
Then, boom, they came across a dark vertical block that lined up neatly with the frame around the first mural. Couple that with the fact that this cell is in a marquee location that all visitors would have been paraded past, and…
“We don’t know for sure,” says Trumbull. “But it’s compelling.”
As for the other mural, nobody knows. If you still have a copy of the Evening Bulletin from Aug. 27, 1935, please flip through it before taking out your recycling.
Because it’s not along one of the prison’s main spokes, visitors tend to miss the little synagogue attached to the back side of cellblock 7. The room was added in 1924 and is believed to be the first of its kind in an American prison.
Its wood paneling and tile floor are a surprise counterpoint to the cold stone and peeling plaster everywhere else in the complex. The synagogue is the only entirely restored room in the prison, its appearance based on archival photos.
Pro-tip: Get a friend with a firm grip and pull down the panel in the left wall to reveal a hidden display as well as one of the doorways to early prisoners’ individual rec yards. They were only allowed one hour outdoors per day.
Once identical, the cells at Eastern State now are somewhat distinguishable by their respective rates and states of decay: This is the one with the bed frame on its side. That’s the one with a large tree branch in it.
Two-thirds of the way up cellblock 8, on the right-hand side, you’ll find the one with the eye. The eye is large and hand-painted in gray, with a blue-ish splotch in the iris. It’s situated just over the door on the inside. Visitors can get a peek at it by bending over backward into the cell.
It brings to mind Big Brother in 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale and its “under his eye” maxim. Or the idea that we’re most honest when we think we’re being watched. (A famous study found that people are less likely to steal or litter when a picture of watchful eyes is nearby.) The artist — and his intentions — remain a mystery.
Exhibits all over the grounds illustrate the ways racial disparity, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs have fueled the prison industry in the years since Eastern State closed its doors in 1971. The point is underscored by immersive art installations like Apokaluptein 16389067:II, created by Philly-born artist/activist Jessie Krimes, who served time in federal prison for nonviolent drug charges. During his sentence, he started making giant, colorful collages using newspaper, hair gel, and prison sheets. Step inside for a moment of intentional beauty.
Walk the Eastern State maze long enough and it’s easy to start rooting for the mice. This was the site of a lot of hardship, for a lot of years. One inmate perhaps worthy of folk-hero status is Clarence Klinedinst — stonemason, petty thief, and leader of a daring 12-man tunnel-digging operation to escape the prison in 1945. He only lasted three hours on the outside, and his entire group was recaptured in months.
The tunnel wasn’t the only way he made his mark on Eastern State. A few years earlier he was enlisted to put his stonemasonry skills to work on the courtyard walls of cellblocks 3 and 4. Look up and look hard and you’ll find the spot where Kliney carved his initials into the mortar. Nearby, he wrote 1938 and drew a crude, vaguely alien-looking face in cement. The face has no discernible expression, and it’s hard to say whether this was a moment of whimsy or a solemn comment on being watched.