Eleven years after separate confinement ended, prisoners ate together for the first time. Making such a major shift in operations was a tremendous task for Eastern State administrators. They had to develop both additional facilities as well as the protocols that would enable the institution to safely, efficiently, and consistently serve meals to several hundred people simultaneously.
The wedge of land between Cellblocks 4 and 5 was the obvious choice for locating dining facilities. It already housed a crowded and interconnected complex that included a modern kitchen, a bakery, a scullery for dishwashing, and a storehouse with refrigeration for provisions. Because this area did not have sufficient space for another building, Eastern State converted the ground-level exercise yards flanking the kitchen complex into two massive, but narrow, mess halls in 1924. One hall was 15’ x 241’ and the other was 15’ x 134’.
Figuring out an efficient way to distribute the prepared food was a considerable challenge. There was no room for serving inside the long, constricted dining halls. Space was also limited on the path to the mess halls – an hourglass- shaped alley joined to the central surveillance hub. Eastern State constructed the first pair of serving counters at the passage’s mid-point bottleneck. With efficiency and safety in mind, guards made sure the men stayed in two-by-two formation and maintained order as they filed by the kitchen windows to pick up their food cafeteria style. Eastern State also built a roof over the alley to protect the serving counters, food, prisoners, and guards from inclement weather.
This narrow passageway quickly earned the nickname “Soup Alley.” The new serving and dining facilities enabled Eastern State to feed most of its population in two shifts of 700 men each. Warden John Groome considered this a huge accomplishment and modern improvement to the outdated facility. However, it wasn’t enough. Awkward and inefficient spaces like Soup Alley were one of the factors that caused Eastern State Penitentiary to close completely in 1971.
A food-focused tour debuted for visitors in 2013 after Eastern State conducted research and erected scaffolding and wood beams to stabilize fragile sections of the building. Now offered hourly, the Soup Alley Hands-On History tour takes visitors behind the scenes to see and discuss how Eastern State fed 1,400 people three times a day. It contrasts menus and meal logistics during the separate confinement period with those during the later congregate era. Visitors walk the same path that prisoners did in the 20th century, pass the four small serving kitchens, and step just inside the mess hall entrances.
Now, Eastern State seeks to vastly improve this popular tour, enjoyed by 20,000 visitors in 2016. Much collapsed building debris remains throughout the route. Along with the scaffolding and wood beams, the debris blocks visitors’ view of Soup Alley’s features, adding to confusion about how the space worked, and limits how far they can enter the mess halls.
Eastern State will conduct a multi-faceted project to:
- Clear the collapsed debris
- Salvage materials for repair and reuse
- Unearth and save artifacts for interpretation
- Replace the 1924 roof and skylights
- Expand the tour route deeper into a mess hall
- Provide a better view of the main kitchen
- Tell an enriched story about prison food past and present
You Can Get Involved!
This archeology, demolition, and roofing project will cost $280,000. You can help make it possible for Eastern State to carry out this work.
Your gift will enable visitors to gain a deeper insight into how the Soup Alley space and mess halls functioned. They will also gain a fuller understanding of the extraordinary, daily effort that went into feeding the penitentiary’s population.
Our website is under construction, and we currently cannot process online payments. Please call 215-236-5111 x 224 to make a contribution. To discuss other types of gifts, contact Katie Holstein at (215) 236-5111 x 217 or [email protected]
Thank you for supporting the preservation of this National Historic Landmark.