Cellblock 3 has captivated visitors since the penitentiary reopened as a museum more than 20 years ago. Opportunities to step past the head gate ornamented with a red cross symbol and explore the full length of the Hospital Block have been rare. The few hardhat tours that Eastern State did offer filled quickly to capacity and affirmed visitors’ high interest in learning more about the healthcare delivered to thousands of inmates.
Engineers inspected and condemned the mid-section of the cellblock’s central corridor in 2011, thereby putting an end to such explorations. The panels of interpretive signage and the brief daily tours into the Operating Room, both developed in 2012, partially address public fascination with Eastern State’s medical history. Still, our visitors yearn to step freely through the gate and see the Hospital Block’s many distinctive features up close.
Cellblock 3 underwent more extensive and frequent alterations than any other cellblock on site. Early changes in the 1830s and 1850s attempted to address defects in the ventilation, lighting, and heating. Most additions and reconfigurations followed the Civil War as the penitentiary responded to the increased crime that accompanied an expanding the national population. Warden Michael Cassidy began a two-decades-long building campaign in 1878 to boost inmate housing capacity. It included adding three new cellblocks, extending Cellblock 1, and adding 20 new cells at the north end of Cellblock 3. Warden Cassidy’s addition quickly became known as “the hospital department.”
Improving on-site healthcare facilities became increasingly critical as average prison sentences grew longer and more inmates were spending their old age behind the walls. Moreover, diseases spread quickly in the cramped, crowded cellblocks. A rapid succession of renovations in the late 1800s and early 1900s created specialized medical facilities within the block. The earliest changes were alterations to the 20 cells in the new addition. The administration enlarged the doors to the exercise yards so that more fresh air and sunlight reached the cell interiors, which physicians believed important for combating deadly tuberculosis (TB).
By 1907, Cellblock 3 was fully dedicated to healthcare. It had an operating room, a recovery ward, a visitation room, a diet kitchen, laboratories, and a pharmacy. Later improvements included a second story Solarium for treating TB, an X-ray lab, and spaces devoted to mental health. A surprising number of architectural features and objects remain in place despite decades of abandonment and decay. We are eager to use them to advance interpretation of the hospital’s vast activities.
Opening the Hospital Block for further exploration and interpretation is a major component of Eastern State’s long-term vision. A series of preservation projects have mitigated the cellblock’s profound state of ruin and moved us closer to the day that visitors will be able to experience more of it.
2003 – 2004: The Operating Room and Recovery Room were saved with new roofs and drainage systems thanks to the 2002 Annual Appeal donors.
2009 – 2011: The Solarium and the original section of Cellblock 3 received new roofs courtesy of donors to the 2007 Annual Appeal and a prestigious Save America’s Treasures grant.
2012: The Operating Room opened for tours after a conservation project removed 80 tons of debris and stabilized interior architectural features as well as the overhead surgical light. Donors to the 2012 Annual Appeal underwrote this work.
Water infiltration rotted the barrel vault’s framing and compromised, or in some areas disintegrated, 30% of the wood lath and plaster inside the corridor of the 20-cell addition. Lack of maintenance allowed the edges of the metal roof outside to lift and let water saturate and rot the materials below. We must repair the roof and skylights as well as restore the barrel-vaulted ceiling in this section of the Hospital Block. Completing the preservation will allow visitors to walk the full length of the 365-foot corridor, look into the cells, and envision the bustling hospital it once was.
Thank you to our generous supporters!
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, provided a critical early grant. Another 558 generous donors enthusiastically supported the project.
With a total $190,000 raised, Eastern State commenced work in December 2016. The architectural conservators began by surveying the ceiling material and removing pieces that could be salvaged and resused after treatment. Next, the architect and engineers assessed the barrel vault’s underlying structure and developed a plan for its repair. Once that work is completed, the conservators will reinstall the lath pieces to their original, documented locations. Eastern State’s tech crew has fashioned new “knuckle” hinges for re-installing the exterior iron security doors after their conservation. The interior wooden doors are also undergoing treatment.
Additional stabilization and conservation work will continue into the spring 2017. The project will culminate with the May opening of the central corridor with expanded programming about prison healthcare.