Mar 17, 2010
2010 Season at Historic Site Offers New Views, Dramatic Tours
Philadelphia, PA (March 2010) – Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, PA, will kick off the new 2010 season with Tunnels and Towers Weekend, providing a glimpse into seldom-seen elements of the historic prison. Visitors have long wished to see two perspectives of Eastern State Penitentiary: the view from the guard towers and of the underground punishment cells, otherwise known as “the hole.” Neither has ever been open to the public.
On April 10 and 11, 2010, at Tunnels and Towers Weekend, the historic site will launch an ambitious new exhibit, TowerCam!, which places high-definition, remote-controlled cameras in the penitentiary guard towers. Visitors will use the cameras to gain the officers’ perspective five flights above.
“Prison Inside a Prison,” a new guided tour, will also premiere that weekend. It guides small groups of visitors in the cramped, dark, windowless, punishment cells below Cellblock 14. In most prisons, these cells are called “The Hole.” At Eastern State they had the additional nickname of “Klondike.” The tours will run every half hour during opening weekend and are free with regular admission to the penitentiary. (Reservations are required for opening weekend.)
Beginning April 10, visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary will be able to visit the TowerCam! exhibit as part of their regular admission to the historic site. Special guided tours of “Prison Inside a Prison,” incorporating the Klondike solitary cells, will be offered Monday through Friday at 3:15 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 12:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
“The view from the center guard tower is just spectacular,” said Sean Kelley, Program Director for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. “In three minutes you understand the building in a whole new way, but the towers just weren’t designed for groups of people. So we rebuilt sections of the guard tower in an old machine shop, and brought the live view down with these high-tech interactive monitors. It’s very cool.”
The new TowerCam! exhibit has been built into former machine shops flanking the baseball diamond inside the prison walls. The space remains in semi-ruin, with just a center section of the room cleared of rusted machinery and debris. Within the cleaned area, two reconstructed sections of the center guard tower catwalks include expanded metal walkways, railings, and spotlights, all built to the exact scale of the real tower 40 feet above.
Visitors standing at the rails of the reconstructed guard tower will control two high-definition cameras, mounted in the penitentiary’s actual central guard tower five floors up. The cameras are placed at the exact spot where visitors are standing on the recreation. The images are played on 52 inch flat screen monitors, giving a rich, vivid perspective of the view from this unique urban setting. Visitors can spin the cameras a full 360 degrees and zoom in and out for views of the 11-acre penitentiary complex.
The exhibit will challenge visitors to locate specific buildings and landmarks throughout the penitentiary, using the TowerCam! cameras. Challenges include finding Death Row, the Warden’s quarters, the Hospital, the Greenhouse, and the roof of the TowerCam! exhibit itself.
A short video loop inside the exhibit will feature interviews with former officers and inmates who remember life both in—and below—the looming guard towers. The stories range from humorous accounts of “on the job training,” to touching stories of neighbors providing meals to officers at holidays, lifted into the corner towers by string.
TowerCam! was curated and designed by Eastern State Penitentiary staff, and is being fabricated by Universal Services Associates in Darby, Pennsylvania.
Towers Over Time
Over time, changing policies allowed the penitentiary’s yards and alleyways to fill with prisoners. The towers were built and rebuilt several times, adding height, security, communications, and weaponry with each step. Eastern State Penitentiary had three sets of towers during its history. Each change was a move away from elegance toward security for the staff and greater surveillance of the yards and roofs. From 1829-1920s, in the first phase of the prison, there was no center tower. There was a balcony, but it didn’t overlook the west side of the property. The corner guard towers were entirely for show: their battlements looked scary, but did not have any enclosure on top for staff. With every prisoner living in separate confinement, there wasn’t much need for a view from above.
With the end of the Separate Confinement system (officially in 1913), groups of prisoners filled the yards between the cellblocks. A particularly daring escape over the east wall in 1923 spurred Warden Groome to construct an elegant wooden tower over the center of the penitentiary, and matching towers in each of the four corners. The Warden was a war veteran and fitted out his new towers with guns. Eastern State’s wooden tower was said to have been built entirely with wooden pegs – no nails. The corner towers finally became functional one century after their construction.
As Eastern State’s administration became increasingly concerned about safety and surveillance in this maximum-security prison, they replaced the wooden towers with steel (center tower) and brick (corner towers). The new towers had bullet-proof glass in their trap doors, spotlights, and even toilets. They were designed to withstand a riot below. Perhaps not beautiful, the new towers were, without a doubt, safer for the officers. The current center tower was built in 1952, and the corner towers were built around the same time.
More on Klondike
The Tunnels and Towers Weekend kicks off a season of limited tours into Klondike, as well as the permanent opening of TowerCam!. The underground punishment cells were built in 1927, when Eastern State Penitentiary was nearly one century old. The cells are low, dark, and windowless, without electricity or plumbing, considered to be a “prison inside the prison.” The Department of Corrections forced the end of their use in the 1950s, replacing them with modern punishment cells above ground. These unique underground cells have never been open to the general public in the past.