Building Description Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Designed by national prominent architect John Haviland and erected between 1822 and 1836, Eastern State Penitentiary represented the first thoughtful, large-scale application of the radial plan to prison design. As completed Eastern State expressed in physical form the progressive penological philosophy known as the "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement. This system was the product of early 19th century rational humanitarianism which believed that controlling social institutions could reform deviant members of the population. The penitentiary attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world during the early decades of its operation, placing the penitentiary at the center of debates on prison design and governance. Notwithstanding the deficiencies and/or merits inherent within the system, Eastern State Penitentiary has directly influenced the design of approximately 300 prisons on four continents and inspired an ongoing conversation about architecture and social control. The erection of Eastern State also marked a turning point in the career of John Haviland, who among other things, went on to build ten more prisons in six states.
Architecturally, Eastern State Penitentiary is a striking example of Medieval Gothic Revival architecture. Characterized by its massive, stone construction; crenelated battlements; projecting towers and buttresses; and (blind) pointed-arched windows, it is one of the earliest examples of a castellated structure in America. A revival of the Gothic design that dominated English architecture from the late-12th through the mid-16th centuries began in England during the mid-18th century; a few examples appear in American by the early 19th century. While later interpretations emphasize the picturesque qualities of the style--as proclaimed by well-known, mid-19th century practitioners such as Alexander Jackson Davis--the Gothic style prior to its revival possessed an aura of mystery and gloom associated with the Middle Ages. This early interpretation of Gothic architecture is particularly well suited to prison design. At Eastern State, its monumental construction and windowless, fortress-like facade evokes impressions of confinement, isolation and gloom. Reflective of the obscurity into which its inmates passed, its missive was clear: live within the laws of the State lest you become one of its inhabitants. As the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture waned by the 1870s, the style was applied primarily to the design of ecclesiastic and institutional architecture.
The penitentiary occupies a ten-acre block defined by a squared masonry wall with castellated, three-and-a-half story towers, one at each of its four corners. Integral with the front wall is the "Anglo-Norman"-style, two-story Administration Building with its central two-story tower. Behind it appear various one-story additions. At the exact center of the property appears the octagonal, two-story Observatory crowned with a two-story sentry tower. Around the Observatory are arranged fifteen one-, two-, and three-story cellblocks (with additions). As the institution expanded within its walls, almost all subsequent cellblock construction echoed the archetypal plan established by John Haviland: individual cells on either side of a skylit, double-loaded corridor that extended from the Observatory toward the perimeter wall. A garage, a laundry/chapel, a kitchen, and a greenhouse are also present within the walls. Its physical structure incorporated innovative construction techniques (cast-iron, standardized elements), and advanced systems for heating, ventilation and indoor plumbing. Developing construction technologies and its idiosyncratic architectural expression all contribute to the distinctive character of Eastern State Penitentiary. Despite the innovative design and penial philosophy expressed by its original form, during the Penitentiary's 158 years of operation the construction and alteration of architectural fabric was undertaken to suit the evolving needs of the institution.