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Eastern State Awarded $499,000 Save America’s Treasures Grant

The National Park Service, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, selects Eastern State Penitentiary as a Save America’s Treasures 2020 grant recipient

September 16, 2020

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has been awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant in the amount of $498,717 to support preservation of the site, a National Historic Landmark. Repairs to two prisoner-designed cellblocks—the only such spaces in the prison complex—will enable the organization to expand both the footprint and content of its public programs.

The National Park Service (NPS), in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), awards these matching grants to support the preservation of nationally significant historic properties and collections. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site joins 41 other grantees in 26 states, including three sites here in Philadelphia, for the 2020 cohort.

At Eastern State, the grant will enable long overdue restoration and preservation work on Cellblocks 13 and 14. Built of reinforced concrete in the early 20th century, they represent a distinct era of prison architecture. However, these prisoner-designed and -built structures were flawed from the start. The steel reinforcing bars of both buildings were placed too close to the concrete surface during construction, resulting in accelerated corrosion. Today, Cellblocks 13 and 14 lack even temporary roof protection. Their reinforced concrete roofs remain exposed, allowing both interior and exterior water damage. If the water intrusion is not stopped, the buildings risk structural failure, and many historic building materials will be rendered unsalvageable.

Thanks to funding from Save America’s Treasures, repairs to the exterior façades of Cellblocks 13 and 14 will be completed with historically sympathetic concrete. Interior stabilization efforts will mitigate all remaining hazards and will ultimately enable the historic site to safely open these spaces to the public and to deepen its interpretation of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Plans also include installing green roofs on each building to support Eastern State’s long-range, site-wide stormwater management plan. The complete project scope is expected to take 33 months. Work will begin once matching funds are secured.

The Federal Save America’s Treasures program, which was established in 1998, is funded by the Historic Preservation Fund and is carried out in partnership with IMLS, NEA, and NEH. From 1999 to 2018, the program provided $323 million to more than 1,200 projects to preserve and conserve nationally significant collections, artifacts, structures and sites.

About Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells held approximately 80,000 men and women during its 142 years of operation, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone.

In recent years, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has been awarded the prestigious Excellence in Exhibitions award by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the nation’s highest award in exhibition development and design, for its exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as well as the Institutional Award for Special Achievement from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and the Trustee Emeritus Award for Stewardship from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Eastern State’s Returning Citizens Tour Guide Project, which hires people who were formerly incarcerated to lead tours, has won the EdCom Award for Innovation in Museum Education by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and has been featured internationally by such networks as the BBC and others.

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For questions or concerns about this project, the public is welcome to contact Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site by emailing [email protected].


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner