The Tour Guide Chronicles

If 1988 Could See Us Now

Posted: January 19, 2012

Twenty-four years ago, in an editorial published January 18, 1988, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that "making Eastern State a museum… is out of the question." The abandoned ruin was put up for sale in 1987 by the city of Philadelphia, and developers proposed a wide range of possibilities for the 12 acre site: condominiums, a theme park, restaurants, a nightclub, and a supermarket. Three proposals then under consideration by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority involved transforming ESP into a shopping mall.

Out of the question, according to developers and editorialists alike, was preserving the penitentiary and creating a museum to keep the history of Eastern State alive. However, a tenacious, committed group of preservationists, architects, and historians had a different plan. In 1988—the same year the Inquirer declared a museum at the penitentiary an impossible prospect—the Eastern State Task Force was formed, and the first limited group tours of the prison were offered.

In 1991, the first Halloween fundraiser was staged. Twenty years later, Terror Behind the Walls is one of the premier haunted attractions in the country. In 1994, the penitentiary opened for public tours on a daily basis. Over 10,000 visitors explored Eastern State that year, wearing hard hats and signing liability waivers.

Attendance steadily climbed throughout the 1990s, and interest in the historic site grew as permanent museum exhibits and marketing campaigns were launched. Hollywood films that shot extensive scenes at Eastern State, including 12 Monkeys and Return to Paradise, sparked further publicity and visitors.

Continued preservation efforts ensured visitors could safely enjoy the historic site. Starting in 2003, visitors no longer had to wear hard hats, and in 2008, visitors no longer had to sign liability waivers. In 2007, our Winter Adventure Tours began. The prison is now open 7 days a week all year long.

Eastern State is now a major historic and cultural destination for tourists and locals alike. In 2011, we celebrated our biggest year ever—a quarter million total visitors! If 1988 could see us now….

Annie Anderson
Historic Site Researcher