|Eastern State Penitentiary
Historic Structures Report
July 21, 1994
City of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Historical Commission
Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force
of the Preservation Coalition of
Marianna Thomas Architects
3961 Baltimore Avenue; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104
This historic structures report on the prison was commissioned by the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force and the City of Philadelphia. Funding was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Getty Grant Program, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the City of Philadelphia.
IV. FABRIC SUMMARY: CONSTRUCTION, ALTERATIONS, AND USES OF SPACE
(for documentation, see Appendices A and B, by date, and C, by location)
Jeffrey A. Cohen
§ A. Front Building (figs. C3.1 - C3.19)
Work began in the 1823 building season, following the commencement of the perimeter walls and preceding that of the cellblocks. In August 1824 all the active stonecutters were employed cutting stones for the front building, though others were idled by a shortage of stone. Twenty-foot walls to the north were added in the 1826 season bounding the warden's yard and the keepers' yard. Construction of the center, the first three wings, the front building and the perimeter walls were largely complete when the building commissioners turned the building over to the Board of Inspectors in July 1829.
The half of the building east of the gateway held the residential apartments of the warden. The west side initially had the kitchen, bakery, and other service functions in the basement, apartments for the keepers and a corner meeting room for the inspectors on the main floor, and infirmary rooms on the upper story. The latter were used at first, but in September 1831 the physician criticized their distant location and lack of effective separation, preferring that certain cells in each block be set aside for the sick. By the time Demetz and Blouet visited, about 1836, ill prisoners were separated rather than being placed in a common infirmary, and plans were afoot for a group of cells for the sick, with doors left ajar like others. And the bakery had been relocated also.
The axial route was controlled by two pairs of gates in sequence, never opened simultaneously. The adjoining gatekeeper’s room was west of the gateway, at least in 1872. The story over the gate at center held the apothecary's office, and the front tower was meant to hold a clock and an alarm bell. By 1872 the western apartments accommodated the resident physician, the clerk's office, and by the early 1890s the matron. The inspectors' room had by then been relocated to the corner room on the main floor in the warden's half of the structure.
By 1837 (fig. A6) both yards had privies in their far corners, that in the warden's yard on a terrace. At the northeast corner of the "domestics' garden," on the west, was a small three-chamber building for receiving new prisoners, bathing them, and storing their possessions. A stable and coachhouse extended westward outside the wall of this yard. A well-fenestrated dye workshop had been appended outside the east wall of the warden's yard. It was probably built shortly after a March 1831 notice stating the a new dye house was needed where 3 or 4 inmates might work while separated. This was apparently not ready in August 1831, at which point dyeing was relocated from a passage to "the old house." This or another dye shop near the front was mentioned in an 1861 notice of an escape using yarn from the dye shop.
In 1872 a new room had just been devised for receiving prisoners, replacing the use of the gatekeeper's room (probably in the western basement) for that purpose. Here the prisoner was officially received, examined, assigned a number, bathed, and clothed. In 1905 the receiving structure in the west yard was extended with rooms for fingerprinting and photography in connection with the adoption of the Bertillon identification system. A kennel building for the patrolling Great Danes was built immediately east of the eastern corner apartment in 1905, replacing an earlier structure elsewhere.
A large number of inmates in various trades were employed in renovations to the warden's quarters, completed in 1900. A sixty-foot flagpole was erected on the central tower in late June 1900. Warden McKenty's daughter, who resided there from 1906-25, recalled the arrangement: on the lower floor there was a very large kitchen, a dining room, a den, and a larger dining room for Board of Directors. Upstairs was a hallway, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and very large sitting room. The third floor had two bedrooms and large rm.
Some major changes took place in 1924-25, most intended to improve security. Administrative offices and the meeting room for the board, now trustees rather than inspectors, were removed from their decades-long location between cellblocks nine and one. These included offices for the warden, a secretary, deputy warden, parole officer, head bookkeeper, and assistants and clerks. The switchboard was moved to the eastern basement. The warden's residence, in this case that of Warden Herbert E. Smith, was switched to the west side's main floor, with the deputy warden on the story above. Visiting, formerly accommodated in designated cells in each cellblock, was consolidated into a basement room in the administration building that allowed ten prisoners at a time to be visited at wire windows. A third set of gates, of iron, was erected between the inner and outer gate.
In early 1937, $25,000 was set aside for construction of a new electrical front gate and a new structure to house it, replacing the old wooden, studded door. Permission was given to use material from the emergency hospital, to be demolished. The work was complete by late 1938.
In the 1930s, the warden was described as having a "tower" office, probably that in the western corner of the front building; the trustees appear to have returned from there to the office between cellblocks nine and one, according to a 1936 WPA plan. The eastern yard served as an exercise yard, possibly for those held in administrative segregation (in cellblock one), as was the case in 1954, as recalled by Warden Brierly. After the Bertillon offices were moved into the new building completed between blocks 8 and 9 in 1941, the old Bertillon building in the west yard was reassigned as the "utility building." The prison began to purchase electricity from Philadelphia Electric Co. in 1952, allowing it to abandon the power house located between blocks 3 and 4; the old Bertillon building was refurbished as a new substation A new building was added here along the western yard wall in 1956, this to accommodate the officers' mess, adjoining a kitchen in the basement of the front block. And a half-sunken emergency generator room was added after 1964. Much of the tall eastern boundary wall of this western yard was opened or reduced in the mid-1950s, probably in concert with these changes.
Some renovation work was performed on the administrative offices in 1952. A guard during the 1950s and 1960s mentioned a control room in the front building, with buttons for operating the gates; it was so short he had to lie down in there.
Drawings of the new visiting room in the eastern yard, basement level, by Keast & Hemphill, Architects, are dated Jan. 1962. The datestone suggests construction took place in 1964. The drawings identified the adjoining rooms in the old fabric as, from the west, the arsenal, two vaulted waiting rooms for the public, and then the bigger, vaulted corner room as the guards' day room. At the ends of the new visiting area were separate spaces for attorney visiting and secure visiting. To the north were spaces identified as EDCC (Eastern Diagnostic and Classification Center) transfer and receiving.
§ B. Cellblock One (figs. D3.1 - D3.21)
The foundations for cellblocks one, two, and three were begun in the 1823 season, and construction of the first of these was largely completed during the 1825 season. Each cellblock was to have 38 cells. Construction of the center, the first three wings, the front building and the perimeter walls was largely complete when the building commissioners turned the building over to the Board of Inspectors in July 1829. Block one received its first prisoner in late October. But by December the planned hot-air furnaces had not yet been built, and the warden instead had six small coal stoves set up in the cells being used. Work was hastened on the furnaces, as this makeshift was found "troublesome, expensive, and dirty."
In early 1832 the penitentiary's physician reported that there was inadequate heat in some cells, failing to reach 60 degrees; until it was improved, he proposed, stoves should be permitted in such cells. A year later the inspectors' building committee announced that the better ventilated skylights installed in blocks 4, 5, and 6 had now also been adopted in the three original blocks, with beneficial results. (Some cells, such as 1-16, indeed have such rectangular skylight, but others do not. Several of the cells here, such as 1-12, have their original dead-eyes, less amenable to propping open, but also have ventilating funnels in the wall to their yard.)
By 1837 there was a cluster of frame structures at its southeastern end, that on axis housing the furnace heating the block, the other structures described by Demetz and Blouet as "hangars." They also described the first three blocks as having been paved in brick, in contrast to the two-story blocks, paved in silver-gray stone slabs. These older blocks were apparently repaved in stone slabs sometime in the mid-19th century. A distinctive detail of cellblock one was Haviland’s squaring of the exposed corner of the innermost yard on the south (see figs. A6, A12), whereas all others from the first phase of construction are rounded. This may reflect that the rounding allowed better visibility and circulation between blocks, something unnecessary along the wider, main axial approach.
As late as 1838 the corridor still lacked cell doors. In the mid-1840s defects in heating, ventilation, and lighting were noted, and in the 1850s defects in the old slate roofs. In early 1852 the first three cellblocks were largely abandoned, except for some of the "turbulent insane." In 1860 only 21 of the 388 prisoners were reported to be in the three oldest blocks. Funds were expended in 1852 to alter and improve the cells of this block to house "infirm prisoners who require the relaxation of separate confinement." They would be sent here "upon the first symptoms of mental derangement." The roofs were repaired in 1853-54, and other improvements were also made to the cellblock. Additional work was done in the corridor about 1860. In 1865 the frame structure at the end of the block was replaced with one of brick. It may have been related to the change from hot water to steam heating, which was tried experimentally in blocks 1, 2, and 4 in the early 1860s.
In April 1868 the legislature approved an extension of twenty cells added to its southeastern end, and this was completed during the next few years, using some prison labor. Future-warden Cassidy, then an overseer, made the plans. Sixteen feet in depth, these cells were notably deeper than the original ones, and had larger skylights. These were apparently the only Cassidy cells (he built four new blocks and extended one other one) built with yards. The junction between the two is evident where the end of Cassidy's first deeper cell exposes the flank of Haviland's adjoining yard. At the end of his original blocks, Haviland had set the range of the yard walls in from the plane of the cell and corridor end wall. Employing the coarser rubble masonry that he usually used, Cassidy constructed a flush outer corner that was distinct from the rest of Haviland's neighboring wall (only evident now due to the erosion of the plaster and the failure of this masonry).
In 1872 Vaux described the first block as 368 feet long, with fifty cells (rather than the 58 one might expect), the old ones 7'6" by 12', and the new ones 8' x 16'. Shorter yards maintained the line of the block's footprint. The apparent discrepancy is explained in a plan by Cassidy (fig. A14) from later in the century, possibly the 1880s, which shows 16 of the 20 new cells combined to form cells of double width, meaning they would be counted as eight fewer. (Cassidy's plan is often unreliable, it seems. Later plans show those very cells as single ones, and eight of the last cells of the older portion combined as doubled cells, as is the case today.) While it is not fully certain, it seems that arches between the pairs were inserted in the second half of the century. Originally, one would assume, stonework of the lateral cell walls rose to a raking line, supporting the ramped barrel vault in hand-wrought brick; the segmental arches seem to be of a harder, machine-pressed brick, and in some places a remnant of rubble stonework is seen between the arch and the vault, tending to support this interpretation.
Doors for the new cells, which slid in grooves, were designed by Cassidy also. These had closed runners, in contrast to the exposed wheels on runners on some of the older cells, suggetsing that the doors to the old cells were not inserted at the same time as the extension was built. A photo down the corridor included in Vaux's 1872 Brief Sketch (fig. D3.1) shows the old hinged doors of the older cells, indicating that the exposed wheels date after 1872, and suggesting this may have been an improvement over the other. The outer cellyard doors of the end cells also have closer sliders, and an offset course above them, possibly meant to shelter them from rain. The older outer yard doors of the early blocks had a similar element, in that the large lintels over them were cut to present a sheltering bow over the yard doors. Flanking the inner yard doors to the cell at nearly threshold level are pairs of enigmatic flanged pipes, of large diameters. These may have been for air supply; they seem too elevated to have been for soil pipes. The lack of scars on the inner yard walls shows that the yard partitions, now removed, were built secondarily, without bonding into the cell-and-corridor construction. This was not the case for some of the two-story cellblocks.
Vaux’s photograph also shows gas lines with branches over each door for lighting the cells, cords in the corridors for adjusting ventilators or skylights, and the long stone slabs paving the corridor. Pots on the corridor floor may be for distributing drinking water. The 1872 description by Vaux also mentions a steam boiler at the end of the block serving cellblocks one and two; Cassidy's plan shows the footprint of an irregular structure labeled "boiler house" at the northeast side of the inner end of the cellblock, which may be the end Vaux meant. By that time it seem to have supplanted the first cell on the left, leaving 49 in that block.
Accounts from the early 1890s indicate that this block was where new prisoners were held for their first two weeks upon reception; coeval accounts indicate that a quarantine for consumptives occupied the lower end of cellblock one.
Later in the 1890s there was a shop for caning chairs in cellblock one (possibly in combined cells rather than in roofed exercise yards), and by 1900 four new spaces had been added beyond the cells closest to the center, these designated “writers' office and cells”; the paperwork conducted there must have been connected with the nearby warden's and clerk's offices. Also by this time, the northern yards closest to the hub were beveled to accommodate cellblock ten. New doors and locks were introduced about 1905. Galvanized iron air vents at the end of each block replaced wooden ones. The brick appendage at the end of the block was demolished in 1907.
About 1923-24, metal gates were installed at the head of all the corridors, to prevent prisoners from rushing the center. In the summer of 1926, concrete floors were poured to replace the old wooden floors of the older cells. And by 1929 nearly all the cells had received a new type of skylight providing more light and air.
Shortly before 1921 some of the southern yards were converted to a schoolroom, but by the 1930s shops occupied the two yard ranges--the print shop on one side and the shoe shop on the other--cutting off ventilation to the block. Filling the end of the space between the south side of block 10 and the north side of block 1 in the 1940s was a large, irregular shoe shop.
An inmate who entered in 1937 at age 17 recalled that he was quarantined in block 1 upon his arrival, but that this was the punishment block, for "administrative segregation." At that time the galleries of blocks 4 and 5 were also for punishment, in addition to block 13. Overheated basement cells near steam pipes, housing 6 to 8 inmates, were possibly on block 1; these “hot box” cells were used for mistreating prisoners until they were revealed publicly in the press in 1953, and the district attorney urged that their use be discontinued. Block 1 was still used for administrative segregation that year. In 1959-61, men awaiting execution were held on B1 and B15.
For some reason not yet clear, two cells on this block preserve their grated doors to the corridor.
§ C. Cellblock Two (figs. D7.1 - D7.5)
The foundations for cellblocks one, two, and three were begun in the 1823 season. By the end of the 1826 season, 76 cells, those of the first two wings, were enclosed and arched over, along with the wooden corridors linking them to the center. By August 1831, block 2 was nearly filled, with only ten cells still available, adding pressure to complete block 3, still lacking locks and other features. Two months later there were 73 prisoners, leaving only three empty cells. The minutes noted a need for a new furnace at the east end of the block, and this was in progress by early December. Early in 1833 the inspectors' building committee announced that the better ventilated skylights installed in blocks 4, 5, and 6 had now also been adopted in the three original blocks, with beneficial results.
Demetz and Blouet described the first three blocks as having been paved in brick, in contrast to the two-story blocks, paved in silver-gray stone slabs. These older blocks were apparently repaved in stone slabs sometime in the mid-19th century.
Mentions in February 1838 and July 1861 attest that the cells still had no doors to the corridor. This was finally remedied in November 1875, when doors from the corridor for most of the cells were finally installed.
In the mid-1840s defects in heating, ventilation, and lighting were noted, and in the 1850s defects in the old roofs of Pennsylvania. In early 1852 the first three cellblocks were largely abandoned, except for some of the "turbulent insane." In 1860 only 21 of the 388 prisoners were reported to be in the three oldest blocks. The roofs were repaired, the cells were enlarged, and improvements were made to cell lighting and ventilation in 1853-55. In 1856 there was a varnishing shop at the end of block 2 or 3; there two men were paired at work, one of sound and one unsound mind, fulfilling a provision of an 1852 law relaxing separate confinement where it endangered mental or physical health. Except for such pairings, the warden claimed, strict separation was maintained in blocks 4-7, block 1, and in workshops, as it had been since the institution of garden and shop labor some years before.
In 1865 the "decaying, unsightly" frame building attached to the far end of the block was replaced by one of brick. Vaux described the second block in 1872 as still holding its original number of cells, 38, but Cassidy's plan shows 35. Morris & Vaux's plan of December 1900 (fig. A16) confirms that number, showing three pairs of cells combined to form three double cells near the far end of the block.
Parts of block 2 were used for punishment at least during the period 1856-67. The dark cells were here, although there were others in the block 5 gallery in 1858. Women were punished here as well, one being transferred there in 1856 from the "women's department." The use of such dark cells was reportedly discontinued in 1875, when Richard Vaux ordered the corridor doors inserted.
It is not entirely clear when this block was assigned for women, but this was probably the case decades before it was explicitly mentioned in 1892. In 1845 it was noted that women were on an upper floor in double cells, but lacked outdoor yards. In 1852 it was reported that women for the first time had access to individual cell yards in an old block, and an 1854 account indicates that the first and second blocks house the infirmary and women, but, oddly, an 1858 mention still refers to the women's "gallery." A recollection by an inmate at ESP in 1881-83 stated that he had been held on block 2 for 18 months; if so, the block was not used exclusively for women at that point. He did mention the cells on the north side of the women's area did not receive adequate heat, presumably referring to block 2. A newspaper account from 1886 reported that the 22 women at ESP (there were 1100 men) were all housed on one block.
Cassidy's plan (fig. A14), of uncertain date (ca. 1880-94) and reliability, shows a boiler house on the south side of the linking corridor, west of the block's first cells. Plans from 1900 show this reassigned as tobacco storage, and identify the matron's office opposite it, near the head of the block.
When tubs were replaced by showers in the other blocks in 1904, they were retained for the women's block. The following year the far end of the block, previously partitioned off for storage, was remodeled. Part of the right (south) side was fitted up as a laundry and drying room employing about twenty female prisoners.
In 1905 galvanized iron air vents at the end of each block replaced wooden ones. New sanitary apparatus was installed in 1907-08. Some repairs were in progress when in 1907, a repair gang drilled a hole into the tobacco room here. Main repairs were made to the block-two kitchen between 1917 and 1920, but in 1923 the women departed the institution, leaving for Muncy. The last left in December.
About 1923-24, metal gates were installed at the head of all the corridors, to prevent prisoners from rushing the center. In the summer of 1926, concrete floors were poured to replace the old wooden floors of the older cells. In July 1928 the cells in this block received a new type of skylight providing more light and air, and 50 new cast iron door frames were installed.
After the departure of the women, school rooms were adapted from former yards on the south side of the block, as shown in WPA plans from 1936 (in the 1940s these were labeled the rag shop). At the end of this range were a store and a laundry. An office and clothing shops (or "tailor shop" in the 1940s), where guards uniforms were made, occupied the northern yards.
Detailed WPA block plans from March 1936 indicate cell and yard uses at that date. There were 38 cells. Using its numbering system (counting from the center, even numbers on the left, here south, odd on the right): 2-2 was storage; 2-4 was a passage to an office; 2-23 was an office; 2-27 and 2-29 were paired as a curio store; 2-31 and 2-33 were an ironing room; 2-28 and 2-30 held clothing for parole violators. Much as in other blocks, cells at the end were barber shops and shower rooms, here 2-36 and 2-38 respectively. A big triangular office for welfare support industries occupied the innermost of the northern yard spaces; there was a tobacco shop opposite, on the south side. Near the east wall of the tobacco shop was a "stone-covered obsolete dungeon." The other yards of the south side were used as classrooms, then the curio store and laundry. The northern yards held a long tailor shop with pressing machines all the way to the end.
Women may have been less damaging tenants than men, and after their departure accommodations in this block were sought after, reportedly through bribes. An inmate who entered in 1937 at age 17 recalled that it was the old men's block.
In the 1950s and early 1960s plans were made to replace the entire western half of the block with a new chapel and auditorium structure, but the project never proceeded.
The cells in this block are unusual in having slit windows in their vertical walls, below their "dead-eyes."