A Dark Gem
A castle-like façade looms darkly above hip Fairmount Street, in the youthfully inhabited and resurrected section of Philadelphia known as “Art Museum.” The area’s moniker is obviously derived from its proximity to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Rocky first famously ran the steps. Once upon a time in 1829, the location was about a mile and a half from the city of Philadelphia. The urban environment has now enveloped the prison structure, surrounding it with industry, residences and icons of art and culture.
Designed by architect John Haviland (1792-1852) specifically to look and intimidate as a fortress, the ten and a half acre complex is Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern State was the second-most expensive American building of its time, built in a radial floor plan, where cell blocks meet in the center, like a wheel’s hub and spokes.
The new Pennsylvania System, as the model of rehabilitation was called in 1829, was to serve a solid purpose of correction of the inmate’s criminal ways. The ultimate goal for the facility was that of true penance for one’s crimes, paved by a road of confinement in complete solitude with ongoing labor. Eastern State became the template for over 300 prisons like it throughout the world.
It was to be a reflective and introspective rehabilitation for the convicted, including only one man per cell for the duration of their sentence. Each cell was provided running water, central heat and flush toilets, even before the White House was so modern. When it was necessary for an inmate to leave his cell, his head was cloaked in a black hood, to maintain his anonymity and to further prevent breach of the sentence of solitude.
This program of complete isolation from others was officially abandoned in 1913, for a more modern, typical approach without shielding of prisoners from one another. Folklore tells that insanity of many of the confined souls led to disintegration of the method. Where prisoners once felt so alone, baseball games were eventually allowed to be played on the prison yard.
One of the famous inmates, besides “Slick” Willie Sutton the bank robber and “Scarface” Al Capone the mobster, was Pep the Black Labrador Retriever. He served a sociable sentence of enlightening the lives of inmates from 1924 to approximately 1934. Pep was condemned to life at Eastern State Penitentiary by then Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot. This was supposedly as punishment after killing the Governor’s wife’s beloved cat, although Pinchot claimed the dog’s committal was as a morale booster for inmates. Clearly, after the early 1900’s, the mood and inmate life at Eastern State Penitentiary lightened drastically, whatever the cause.
Closed in 1971 and now a Penology Museum, the penitentiary is open for tours. Over 100,000 visitors wander the grounds and cell blocks annually, marveling at the restored areas, catwalks, cathedral-like cell blocks, Al Capone’s cell from his sentence of 1929 to 1930, and the depicted escape tunnels that made their way under the eight-foot thick fortress walls to hoped for freedom.
Eastern State Penitentiary now allows unprecedented access to this unique monument of reform from the youth of our nation. Visitors are allowed to wander self-guided through so much of the facility that you leave with a clear perspective of what everyday solitude was like for over 75,000 people who served time during the heyday of this historic site.
If going to prison is not your idea of finding your “oneness,” then consider the rest of the city of Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest metropolis. Very few places in the United States can match the wealth of tangible American history as is available to any tourist here. Ask any resident what you should do or see first and they are sure to answer, “Well, have you seen the Liberty Bell?”
But, what is beyond the Bell? Now of course, one must certainly stop and pay homage to our most famous and historic (slightly cracked) icon. Yet, isn’t there more to our original Capital City than that? Oh, there is so much more. Just be sure you bring your walking shoes, the ones that look nice enough to wear in a posh restaurant.
Philadelphia offers all of the bustle, noise, skyscrapers and cosmopolitan living that one would expect from a metropolis of its size and population. It is shiny and new, polished steel and glass, coupled with the quaint and cobble stoned, wrought iron and masonry.
For a solo traveler, or a couple seeking to enjoy a quiet and romantic getaway, Philly is probably not high on the list of destination prospects. But, a little realized fact is that one (or a pair) can find solitude and introspection, even romance, among Philadelphia city life. Oneness is there in the second largest city in the Northeast, you simply must look beyond the metropolitan dressings to see it.
Do you envision crowds of people, briefcases in hand and car horns blaring during the crunch toward office life? Wrong. Philadelphia is populous, yes. But, the city’s “downtown” sidewalks do not have extreme elbow-to-elbow crowds during even the most hectic times of a commuter’s day, with the exceptions of roadway traffic and some area trains, of course. The city was well-planned from its founding in 1681 and that thoughtful expansion has continued through modern times, so that one never senses overcrowding or the claustrophobic feeling of being lost in a sea of people, as can be felt at rush hour in Manhattan or other large cities. Sure, there are many commuters. But, maintaining your own personal space is not difficult.
Thus, a visitor unfamiliar with the area can enjoy continuing their tours or sightseeing, even on a Monday morning when locals dash about as part of their routine. You can stop and contemplate a street scene in the middle of Center City or at famed City Hall at any time of day without feeling rushed, pushed or encroached upon by inhabitants. On weekends, you might even walk John F. Kennedy Boulevard and have most of the sidewalk to yourself.
Beyond the absence of an overwhelming city “crush,” Philadelphia has invested so much time, energy and expense in building and maintaining itself as a welcoming, green, art-centered tribute of both our country’s founding and its imperialistic reign at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. The city seems to be geared toward beauty and contemplative thought.
In fact, where else can you stand under a giant clothespin or walk among huge game pieces within steps of a City Hall, and then stride a little further to visit some of the most spectacular examples of art collection and scientific tribute in the world? Clearly this is a place with an endearing sense of humor, one where childlike fascination in the everyday runs parallel to the ingenuity and exploration of intellectuals and philosophers.
So how do you “find yourself” in the midst of so much action and movement, as any city presents? Simply book a wonderful hotel room, don some comfortable clothes and shoes, turn on your tunes and start walking. The best of Philadelphia is at your feet, connected by massive and well-maintained sidewalks enabling you to stroll in silence from your hotel to Independence Hall, Old City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Park to Eastern State Penitentiary, shopping to restaurants and back to your luxurious room again. If walking is not your preference, grab a trolley, taxi, train, horse carriage or bus.
As you proceed throughout Philly, stop and contemplate the architecture. Venture beneath City Hall’s massive archways into the central courtyard. Take in the exhibits at any and all of the museums. Visit Al Capone’s prison cell. Walk, absorb and really see our history, past and present. In doing so, you will find moments that awaken you to who we were as a country, who we are now and how your part is bigger than you expected. After all, Philadelphia is the City of Independence, where a group of individuals joined together to form a more perfect One.