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Uncovering Eastern State’s Dental Lab

When Eastern State Penitentiary opened for historic tours in the 1990s, staff were faced with the monumental task of stabilizing the building. Over many years, numerous trees were cut down and tons of building detritus were removed to clear the corridors and make the site accessible. But if you’ve been to Eastern State lately, you probably noticed that the clean-out process stopped at the corridors: most of Eastern State’s 1,000 cells and ancillary spaces remain untouched since the building was abandoned in 1971.

The ruinous condition of Eastern State’s walls, nooks and crannies is a visual reminder of the building’s abandonment period, an important part of the penitentiary’s history that we are committed to preserving. For many reasons, we won’t be cleaning out every room any time soon, but we do make careful interventions as needed to support our mission and keep our staff and visitors safe. We recently undertook one such project in Cellblock 7.

We set out to create a safe path to the second floor of Eastern State’s central rotunda, a space that our tech crew must access quite often, by removing debris from a room on the second floor. To inspect the structural stability of the second-floor framing, we also needed to clear out the room immediately below it. In March 2021, contractors removed over four tons of debris from these two spaces to create safe access. As the crew worked, they carefully raked through the debris to salvage any buried artifacts, saving them for review by our archivist and manager of historic preservation.

Before and after shot of first floor door showing progress in clearing debris

In these before and after photos, notice the condition of the room after the debris was removed. It’s still in a state of ruin! While there is more work to be done to stabilize the structure for safe access, we will be leaving the walls as-is with their peeling paint and plaster. The room is consistent with Eastern State’s overall appearance today – you might not even notice it if you walked by – but is now safe for staff access and, one day, perhaps visitors, too.

Any time we undertake work in a new space, we return to the archival record to help interpret any found artifacts or revealed architectural features. In doing so, we learned that the second-floor room we cleaned out was labeled as an “Officers Room” in 1936 building plans and was later used for storage. The first-floor room was used for storage around 1900, then functioned as a dentist office from at least 1936 through 1958. We are always learning something new!

Black and white photo of historic dentist office next to same space filled with debris today

At some point in the first half of the 20th century, the walls between the three cells adjacent to this historic dentist office were demolished to create a single room, accessible from both the office and the Cellblock 7 corridor. This adjoining space served as the Dental Lab, a space where incarcerated people created dentures for the prison system. In 1959, this space evolved again from Dental Lab to Band Room, as Eastern State’s band moved from the third floor of Cellblock 6 into the former Dental Lab for better sound control. In 1959, Eastern State’s mechanical director, Joseph Roach, reported:

“We stoned-up the two cell doors which previously opened into the Block from the laboratory and, as expected, it decreased the volume of noise and sound coming from the Band Room during the playing of the musical instruments, vibrating through the Block.”

Because of the stoned-up doors and the debris in the adjacent first-floor room, no one had seen this abandoned space in years – even Eastern State staff. Projects like this not only serve an operational goal to create safe access to staff spaces, but prompt us to revisit a forgotten piece of history.

Empty dusty room, Eastern State's abandoned dental lab

Liz Trumbull
Manager, Historic Preservation and Architectural Conservation

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner