Do We Really Still Need Eastern State Penitentiary?

It's certainly helped Fairmount's revitalization, but it's time to think about repurposing the space

This month, as Eastern State Penitentiary celebrates 20 years of luring giggling thrill-seekers to its annual Halloween scare-fest “Terror Behind the Walls,” I celebrate four months of happy residency in Fairmount. Three times in one summer, I doled out $12 to traipse through the imposing “WTF”-inducing structure with audio tour guide Steve Buscemi.

And three times, the visitors I dragged along emerged into fresh air and sunlight, and offered muffled reviews: “It’s something, but … they need the whole thing? Really?”

Like anyone who hangs her hat in Fairmount, I have a fondness for this cryptic, if idiosyncratic, piece of architecture. The neighborhood loves Eastern State, and in return, Eastern State has fulfilled its duty as an unlikely beacon of community pride. In addition to “Terror,” it gives us Bastille Day, Prison Break Weekend, and, of course, stroller-wheeling, mocha-sipping spenders we can thank for revitalizing our patch of city. Fairmount is a gentrification fairy tale.

Except for one teensy detail: There’s a rotting prison taking up four square neighborhood blocks.

In 2009, Eastern State raised more than $5 million toward its mission to make the penitentiary accessible to the public, to “preserve and restore the architecture,” and to impress its historic significance on its visitors. It spent almost $2 million to conserve the prison synagogue, the Bertillion millwork, the print-shop roof, and sections of the floor, perimeter wall and lights. Yet huge tracts of the complex remain decrepit and hazardous. The iconic Gothic walls are festering with roaches and bird feces. At the rate it’s going, Eastern State could be a century-long, multi-million dollar project; one that will leave in our midst a fully restored, inoperative 19th-century prison.

Have we really thought this through?

You don’t need to be a thoroughbred Philadelphian to appreciate this city’s regard for its heritage. But it may be time to ask if spending the next several decades scooping and repainting crumbling concrete is wise. Maybe it’s time for planning to trump preservation: What kind of park could sit inside those mammoth stone walls? Which corridor could be restored in full as an exhibit, and which could be, yes, bulldozed to make way for more public-friendly facilities? The question I’m posing isn’t what combination of Chipotles and Ann Taylor Lofts could take over the space. It’s how we can honor and learn from the penitentiary while using its structure in a more  productive way.

It would be cynical and obtuse to suggest that Eastern State isn’t a significant enough site for the city to prioritize. But to insist that we fight time, the elements and fickle funding to re-create its entire turn-of-the-century appearance seems, to this newcomer, poor use of civic imagination and energy.

The article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.