Exploring overlooked urban zones, state borders and extra-territorial sites throughout the world, contributors probe contemporary perspectives on power and its evasions


From Pennsylvania Panopticon to Experiential Site

A special tour of historic Eastern State Penitentiary and the transformations made in the name of preservation and education

Fields of Knowledge
  • Design
  • Memory
  • Pedagogy
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slought, PennDesign, Eastern State Penitentiary

Contributing Institutions

Centre for Architecture Research, Goldsmiths College, London, the Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania, the Department of English, University of Pennsylvania


Aaron Levy, Katherine Carl, Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss


Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago

Opens to public





Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19130


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought and the Department of Architecture, PennDesign, are pleased to announce "From Pennsylvania Panopticon to Experiential Site: Eastern State Penitentiary," a special tour of this historic penitentiary on Saturday, March 31, 2007 from 10am-12:00pm, led by Sean Kelley, Program Director of the Penitentiary. Kelley will provide an overview of Eastern State and some of the ongoing transformations that are being made to this historic site in the name of preservation and education, in relation to larger developments in the field of geopolitics today.

For years delegations (in the manner of this one) have journeyed to Philadelphia from afar to study the Pennsylvania System and the architecture of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern's distinctive geometric form and its regimen of isolation became in its day a symbol of progressive, modern principles; by the 1830s and 1840s, tourists who flocked to Philadelphia to study this architectural wonder had already begun to participate in and contribute to a growing debate about the effectiveness and compassion of solitary confinement. After 142 years of consecutive use, Eastern State Penitentiary was completely abandoned in 1971; it now stands as a lost world of crumbling cell blocks and empty guard towers, overseen since 2001 by a new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

This special tour marks the start of the 2007 Spring Season at Eastern State Penitentiary and has been organized on the occasion of "Evasions of Power" (March 30-31, 2007), a symposium at Slought Foundation and the Department of Architecture at PennDesign, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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About Eastern State Penitentiary

In 1787, a group of influential Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin; there, the Members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed concern with conditions in American and European prisons. Most eighteenth century prisons were simply large holding pens where groups of adults and children, men and women, and petty thieves and murderers, sorted out their own affairs behind locked doors. Physical punishment and mutilation were common, and abuse by the guards and overseers was assumed. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society's goal to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design and proposed that they build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal's heart. It took the Society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build a revolutionary new kind of prison on farmland outside Philadelphia.

Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. The massive new structure opened in 1829 and became the most expensive American building of its time and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent.

In the architectural plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, seven cell blocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland's ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight of light from God (in an age when Andrew Jackson's White House had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves). In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. A menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls. During the century following Eastern's construction, more than 300 prisons in South America, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and across the British Empire were based on its plan.

The later additions into the Eastern State Penitentiary complex illustrate the compromise reached when this munificent, ill-fated intellectual movement collided with the reality of modern prison operation. Warden Michael Cassidy added the first cell blocks in the 1870s and 1890s. They retain the barrel vaults and skylights, the feeding doors and mechanical systems. Mirrors provide continued surveillance into the new cell blocks from the Rotunda. But the cells did not include exercise yards. Inmates were issued hoods with--for the first time--eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity.

The system of solitary confinement at Eastern State did not so much collapse as erode away over the decades. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued. The last major addition to Eastern State Penitentiary's complex of buildings was made in 1956: Cell Block Fifteen, or Death Row. This modern prison block marked the final abandonment of any aspect of the Eastern's original architectural vocabulary. The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times. Within the Penitentiary's perimeter wall, built with the belief that all people are capable of redemption, prisoners awaited execution.

By the 1960's, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment and the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994.

Read Sean Kelley's "The Ruin Isn't What it Used to Be," an introductory guide to Eastern State Penitentiary:

Download guide

Related publications

Editors Srdjan Weiss, Katherine Carl and Aaron Levy survey perspectives on power and evasion, with essays by Samuel Weber and others on human rights, geopolitical conflict, and sovereignty.

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