Eastern State Penitentiary Launches New Hands-On History Visitor Interactives

Mar 24, 2011, 12:22 ET from Eastern State Penitentiary

PHILADELPHIA, March 24, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- Eastern State Penitentiary will kick off the 2011 season by literally handing visitors the keys to the cellblocks with new Hands-On History interactive experiences.

(Photo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20110324/PH71140 )

These short demonstrations take place throughout the penitentiary complex, each lasting five minutes or less.  An expert Eastern State tour guide will lead each activity, although visitors will do the bulk of the physical activities themselves.  The Historic Site will celebrate the new program with a special "Hands-On History Weekend," Saturday and Sunday, April 2 and 3.  The standard 11 stops will be augmented with additional stops and special guests throughout the weekend.

Hands-On History consists of 11 stops.  Highlights will include the following:

  • Opening the Massive Front Gate

One of the most iconic images of Eastern State, the large iron front gate, was built in 1924 as an additional measure of security for an increasingly rowdy prison population. For the very first time, visitors will be handed the key and given directions on how to open the massive gate.  The lock is more complex than it seems, and the weight of the gate is substantial.

  • Exploring the Underground Punishment Cells ("Klondike")

Visitors will climb down into the dark cells beneath Cellblock 14 to see the punishment cells, learn about some of the inmates who stayed there, and see part of the prison's subterranean maintenance tunnels. Sometimes called "Klondike," the four concrete, windowless cells were constructed in 1927 with no plumbing or heat, and were designed to inflict additional punishment for inmates serving time in a maximum-security prison.

  • Witnessing Inmate Art in the Catholic Chaplain's Office

Open to the public for the first time, the Catholic Chaplain's Office (originally built as the Warden's office) features a set of moving and beautiful murals, now under restoration after many years of neglect.  The murals were painted by an inmate, Lester Smith, brought to Eastern State in the 1950s for a series of armed robberies.  Smith experienced a religious conversion at Eastern State, and the murals remain as a tribute to his spiritual rebirth.

  • Unlocking a Cell

When Eastern State opened, it was revolutionary in design and touted as "escape-proof," with sturdy iron cell doors that anchored into the wall.  Visitors today often wonder how the intricate hardware worked.  Now Eastern State tour guides will hand the cell keys to visitors, and let them discover how complicated these locks really can be.

  • Revealing the Synagogue's Hidden Panel

Eastern State's synagogue was almost certainly the first built in an American prison. It is also the first fully restored space at the penitentiary.  The 2009 restoration was designed with a sophisticated hidden panel that hinges down, exposing cell doors and padlocks dating from the 1830s.  Visitors are invited to lower the panel themselves and uncover this remarkable hidden space.

Hands-On History programs will run every day through November 30 as part of the 2011 season and are included in the standard price of admission. 

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of convicts. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America's most notorious criminals, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and Al Capone.

Tours today include the cellblocks, solitary punishment cells, Al Capone's Cell, and Death Row. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for students and children ages 7-12 (not recommended for children under the age of seven).  From March 15 to November 30, admission includes "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.  For more information, please call (215) 236-3300 or visit www.EasternState.org.

SOURCE Eastern State Penitentiary