An Ambitious, Interactive Exhibit
Visitors always ask to climb into Eastern State’s massive guard towers, but their design makes this impossible.
TowerCam! features high–definition remote–controlled cameras in the center guard tower, allowing visitors to achieve the perspective of an Eastern State guard on the tower’s catwalk. The views of the Penitentiary and Philadelphia are seen on extra large plasma television screens.
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 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 challenges 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 features 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 was 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.
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.