The Operating Room of the Hospital Block

A surgery underway at Eastern State in 1958.
The dramatic roofline of the Operating Room as seen from the Central Guard Tower in 2010.
Eastern State proudly featured the new Operating Room in its 1912 Annual Report.
Patient on a gurney, 1958.
Conservators in protective gear look for artifacts and fragments within the dirt and debris they have cleared off the floor.
With this second load, the total weight of hazardous debris removed was 30,000 lbs.
Eastern State’s Tech Crew stabilizes the skylight supporting the Operating Room’s surgical lamp.
A conservator prepares to apply a protective clear coating on the head gate’s red cross.
Conservators at work cleaning and stabilizing the wooden materials of Dr. Goracci’s door.
This door and overhead window separated the likely scrub area from the Operating Room.
George B. Heckman, M.D., Eastern State’s staff physician 1927 – 1929.
2012, $35,000
Status: Underway

A Critical Facility Upgrade that Saved Lives

A steeply sloped roofline sets the Operating Room apart from other sections of Cellblock 3, one of John Haviland’s original seven blocks of the penitentiary’s radial plan. This distinct addition once held clerestory windows that supplied steady northern light to the room below. Such light was critical to the work of the doctors and inmate nurses performing surgery on Eastern State's burgeoning and aging inmate population.

Completed in 1910, the sterile Operating Room provided a vastly improved surgical environment over the earlier spaces used – an inmate’s individual cell. The Operating Room, converted from two single cells and three exercise yards, was part of a larger renovation campaign turning the entire cellblock into a complete state-of-the-art hospital. In addition to the Operating Room, Cellblock 3 gained laboratories, quarantine housing and recovery wards. By 1917, the entire block was devoted to medical care.

There were over 100 surgeries a year in the hospital by 1920, up from just a handful in the first years of the 20th century. A variety of surgeries were performed: amputations, appendectomies, circumcisions, hernia repairs, dental and eye-related procedures, and more. Al Capone had his tonsils removed in September 1929. In the 1940s, Eastern State launched a “skin bank” so inmates could donate skin to burn victims, particularly children and servicemen affected by World War II.

By the 1950s and 60s, Eastern State’s medical wing had become an unusually well equipped and sophisticated prison hospital. Inmates from other facilities with challenging medical conditions were often transferred to the penitentiary for treatment. In a typical week the operating room might be used for heart surgery, joint repair, emergency trauma, and plastic surgery. The Medical Director reported 226 procedures in 1964.

Preservation Efforts 2003 –2011
Eastern State has made steady progress towards mitigating the Hospital Block’s profound state of ruin and laying the groundwork for opening it up permanently.

Collapse Prevented
In 2003 – 2004, Eastern State saved two structures from near collapse. We restored the drainage systems and asphalt shingle roof over the Operating Room and installed a temporary wood and rubber membrane roof over the Recovery Room. Donors to the 2002 Annual Appeal made this work possible.

Roofs Restored
Eastern State conducted a major roofing project 2009 – 2011 that replaced roofs over the Solarium and Cellblock 3. Donors to the 2007 Annual Appeal supported this significant progress.

Access Expanded
In 2011, with the roofing completed, we cleaned the corridor linking the Center to the Cellblock 3 head gate. Visitors gained a clearer view of the block. Expanded signage and a new audio stop featuring excerpts of interviews with former staff and inmates provided more information about its use as a hospital and the location of the various specialized spaces.

Before Eastern State can fully open up the fascinating Hospital Block, it must complete extensive stabilization work to meet building safety codes, particularly under the Solarium. The Operating Room, however, offered an intermediate step that would let visitors into part of the cellblock. Eastern State set out in 2012 to raise the funds underwriting the conservation preparing the Operating Room for visitors through the Hands-On History program.

Preparing the Operating Room for Hands-On History
The first step entailed a methodical “excavation” of the Operating Room. Conservators divided the rooms into sections and sifted through several inches of dirt and debris that covered the floor. They carefully noted where they found any original artifacts. After several weeks of work, they had uncovered a beautiful terrazzo floor, several patterns of tile, and artifacts such as stirrups, a roll of gauze, and letters from the Medical Director’s door. Evidence of water pipes and faucets pointed toward the most likely location for the surgeons to scrub up before surgery.

Eastern State next stabilized the skylight, which supports the room’s primary feature, the surgical lamp. Simultaneously, Eastern State developed the content for the Hands-on History tours that started in April 2012. Conservators treated the vulnerable red paint on the cross on the cellblock’s head gate that identifies the section as the Hospital Block.

Currently under conservation is the door identifying Dr. Goracci as the Medical Director. Eastern State is also establishing its priorities for conserving and reinstalling architectural details and artifacts as well as reintroducing electricity – all aimed at enriching the tour experience. Under discussion are the double door and overhead fan light window, a supply cabinet with its inmate-labeled shelves, and an IV drip stand.

A Successful Project
By the end of November, more than 16,000 visitors had stepped inside the Operating Room. Among them were members of Dr. George B. Heckman’s family. Dr. Heckman had shared stories with his family about his direct encounters with Al Capone and others at Eastern State.

Eastern State set out to raise $35,000 for the study, stabilization and conservation of the Operating Room. Thank you to the 183 donors and members who generously contributed $54,000 to make this project a reality!

Their gifts both advanced preservation of the Hospital Block and enhanced Eastern State’s programs with a significant addition to the successful Hands-On History program.