Monday, June 21, 2010

ESP Experiences

- Alaina

“Have you ever had any experiences?” Visitors ask me this every day, and I could tell them about my wedding or the time I fed a giraffe. But I know what they really mean is whether I’ve had any paranormal experiences at ESP.

True, ESP is a different place after-hours. The cavernous cell blocks are empty, and the blackness inside the open cells snags yours eyes as you walk down the silent corridors. But the scariest thing I’ve seen there are some resident night-time bugs. “Well, are you a believer?” visitors want to know. I’ll be honest - it’s hard to parse beliefs about the great beyond when you’ve just finished giving the Escape Tour. I guess I could say that if I ever see a ghost, I’ll believe in it. Of course, I don’t mind if you want to search for ghosts. I just ask the many paranormal investigators I meet to respect the prison’s human history, because if ESP is haunted, then to me, that represents real people’s lives and deaths.

Of course, you may hear strange things and your eyes can play tricks on you in the dark - it’s a matter of how much you want to indulge your imagination. ESP is a large, drafty building where drips echo like footsteps and plaster seems to whisper as it crumbles. At night, I feel safe inside the walls of ESP. If there were any ghosts, I imagine I’d be fond of them. If you see any apparitions when you take my tour, you can let me know….or not.

(Photo by L. Hannah March)

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Results Are In!

Julia, Merchandise Manager

When we create merchandise for Eastern State, we always strive to make it a public process. More often than not, we do our best to poll the public and try and find out what they are looking for in a product.  For our most recent endeavor, we tried using two different approaches to getting our customer’s opinions. The result was a new T-shirt design that will be available in two weeks!

The first part of creating new merchandise is deciding what we need. Our newest design has been selling quite well, but it is only available in women’s sizes.  Our male visitors frequently ask why we don’t have the shirt in men’s sizes.

We wanted to incorporate this design with the retired radial design, a visitor favorite.  On a busy weekend in the Spring we set up a table in the Gatehouse and asked visitors to vote for which design they would like to see available in our store. The results from that poll were convincing, but we decided to poll our online community as well.

By using Eastern State’s new Facebook page, we were able to put our T-shirt poll online.  We gave our fans about a week to vote for their favorite design and the same design proved to be the favorite once again!

We are excited to announce the newest addition to the Eastern State Museum Store. It should be available for purchase in the next two weeks.  Thanks to all of you for voting!

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Alumni" Reunion

- Erica, Admin and Collections Assistant

Year after year a special group returns to Eastern State Penitentiary to enjoy some food, a little new gossip, and a lot of stories of “the old days.” At the Alumni Reunion on May 22, groups of former inmates, guards, staff, and their families once again gathered to share their memories of the building with one another and with visitors.

Like our visitors, I’m often surprised that so many “alumni” choose to return to the penitentiary. On first thought, the penitentiary seems to be an entirely negative space: the scene of many violent acts, a place away from family and friends, where even the staff were locked inside until their time (shift) was up. More than one person has confessed that just being back inside the building makes them feel uncomfortable: as if they feel a repressed panic that they will be once again confined within its impenetrable walls.

However, for many, their time living and working at the penitentiary comprised a large portion of their lives. “The old days” weren’t always good, but they were meaningfully sprinkled with acts of kindness and respect. Many of the friendships formed here lasted for decades and a chance to see one another again is welcome. Others return because it’s a chance to explain part of their life experience to their loved ones.  Some might return because they feel a duty to tell the public what prison is really like and how it doesn’t compare to a life on the outside.

I was disappointed when the persistent rain showers worsened and the public question and answer session with the alumni was cut short.  I hope that next year will afford another chance to share this event with our visitors and the men and women who lived the history of Eastern State.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sorrows, Smiles & Mythical Beasts

- Kate

Eastern State Penitentiary held tens of thousands of inmates and employed hundreds of workers over its 142-year history.  Did these men and women leave any personal trace?  Yes!  Some made physical marks on the building itself—small, enigmatic reminders of life behind the walls.

Guards often permitted prisoners to paint their own cells.  (When Charles Dickens visited Eastern State in 1842, he observed that one inmate “had painted [his cell] walls and ceiling quite beautifully.”)  In Cellblock 8, a layer of institutional green and white paint has chipped away to reveal an eye with a teardrop over a cell door.  In addition, the prisoner painted one wall with a wood grain pattern to resemble paneling.

In the courtyard between Cellblocks 3 and 4, we glimpse a grinning face in the stonewall mortar.  An inmate laborer working on the wall was compelled to add this flourish along with the year (1938) and his initials (CK, not pictured).  We believe this prisoner may have been Clarence Klinedinst, a skilled stonemason.  His other contributions to the site include a 97-foot underground escape tunnel from his cell out to Fairmount Avenue!

Finally, compare these two Pennsylvania state seals, both embedded in the walls of the intake room (now historic site staff offices):

Notice anything odd about the one on the right?  Yes—instead of horses, the seal has UNICORNS!  Even in a desolate prison ruin, a bit of whimsy survives.  Amazing!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cellblock 7

- Alaina

John Haviland: internationally renowned 19th-century architect. Mastermind of the most influential prison ever built. Enduring show-off.

I can’t help but think it when I walk down Cellblock 7, completed in 1836 and recently re-opened for 2010 after a year of vital plaster repairs. 

Cellblocks 4 through 6 have second-story cells directly flush with those under. A plain, practical iron walkway juts from each side of the second floor. But Seven’s second-story cells are set back from the first floor, making a comfortable walkway with a real floor. Flower-sculpted cast-iron railing posts make a strikingly elegant balustrade (Haviland personally owned the design for these balusters) which embellishes the beautiful, ingeniously fitted iron staircases. Seven is ESP’s longest, widest block, and it has a lofty, majestic, sunlit peace.

But who was it all for? Was it meant to underscore the civil and spiritual ideals of the first penitentiary? If so, when did the inmates, locked in their cells, get to contemplate it? Was this grandeur meant to inspire the guards or impress outside dignitaries and journalists?

Or perhaps, in designing this monument to not only the problems of civilization but also to a human, social and spiritual ideal, Haviland could not help indulging his taste for beauty – despite a prison’s grim daily function. If I had Haviland’s talent and notoriety, would I resist such splendid flourishes? 

Maybe I like Cellblock 7 so much because Haviland really designed it to wow me and you and everyone else who will ever see it. He might have been a bit of a show-off – but I’m not complaining.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Locked Gates

- Alaina

“Why are you locking that gate behind us?” It’s a question I get a lot. Sometimes, what with all the gates that must be opened and closed, unlocked and locked (“hey, what’s in there??”) as we tour guides move through the building and lead our groups, it might seem like ESP’s staff still wants to keep anyone from escaping. Despite the fact that ESP (though I say it myself) is the coolest historic attraction in Philly nowadays, back when most of the prison was built in the early 1800’s, no-one had any idea it would become a popular 21st century museum. Now, we have to adapt ESP to its new purpose.

“But why can’t I stroll wherever I want?” visitors wonder. Well, in a 180-year-old building, safety is paramount. Even staffers can’t enter some areas of ESP, because of the dangerous deterioration. This dilapidation is part of the prison’s irresistibly authentic aura – but also the biggest challenge of inviting folks inside. The best way to make sure everyone is safe is to keep track of where everyone is, and that’s why I lock the gate behind us. 

But those who have been to ESP know that you need a few hours to take in all the places you can wander. The fact is, a few locked gates are really what allow us to keep so many spaces open. And although a few cell blocks are closed, you still have a great view of their haunting, deserted corridors – making for some of the best photo ops in the city. Our stabilization and restoration work is always going on, and this year, new tour spaces include the TowerCam exhibit and Cellblock 14’s underground “Klondike.” So every season, I’ll be unlocking a few more gates for you.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Check out our cool new video!

We've created a cool new video with eerie and beautiful images of the prison and our new 2010 programming.  It also has a funky soundtrack by jazz composer Vijay Iyer. 

Check it out and see below on how you can help us spread the word...

We'd love for you to embed this video on your individual Facebook pages, link to it from Twitter, etc. When you post it, please suggest that anyone watching it should also repost it. We've set a goal to reach 10,000 views within a week - help us get there!