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ESP to Break Ground on Project to Pave the Way for Future Visitor Center

As part of larger vision, Eastern State will begin construction on infrastructure and new tour launch point

October 31, 2019

Philadelphia, PA (October 31, 2019) – At a November 14 gathering of friends, supporters, and local dignitaries, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site will break ground on the first phase of construction of its planned visitor center. The project will mark a major milestone in Eastern State’s long-range vision to improve guests’ access to the site and expand space available for year-round programming on criminal justice reform.

This initial phase of construction – projected to take place from fall 2019 through spring 2020 – will have two components. Upgrades to infrastructure, including electricity and plumbing, will lay the groundwork necessary for future construction. In addition, Eastern State will also build a new tour launch point, providing visitors with ample seating, a water bottle refilling station, and protection from inclement weather.

Major funding for this work was provided by the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. The Thursday morning groundbreaking will mark Eastern State’s first event celebrating progress in its plan to build a state-of-the-art visitor center.

The addition of a new visitor center, once sufficient funds are raised, will allow Eastern State to better serve its 275,000 annual visitors. They will be welcomed into a climate-controlled atrium with dramatic views of the penitentiary’s stone tower. The visitor center will improve visitor flow, increase access to the site for people of all abilities, and provide modern restrooms.

The atrium of the planned visitor center will also permit for increased programming on issues of contemporary corrections. In service of Eastern State’s mission to interpret the legacy of American criminal justice reform, the site aims to foster dialogue about issues relating to modern-day incarceration. This space will allow Eastern State to host discussions with national thought leaders and policy makers twelve months a year. These public programs will be supported by cutting-edge audio-visual technology and will enable Eastern State to fulfill its potential as a national center for dialogue around some of the most critical issues facing the United States today.

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.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is open for tours seven days a week, year-round. Admission includes “The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi; Hands-On History interactive experiences; history exhibits; and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations.

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. The Returning Citizens Tour Guide Project, which hires people who were formerly incarcerated to lead tours of the historic site, 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.

For more information, the public should visit or call 215-236-3300.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner