September 30, 2005
The Eastern State Penitentiary Tour

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a massive, gothic "castle", which is located about four blocks North-East of the world famous Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was built in 1829, but because it is located just out of sight from the more famous landmarks of Philly, few people realize it exists.

The Penitentiary recently got my attention when it was featured on an episode of the TV show T.A.P.S., which investigated the rumors, and first-hand accounts that the abandoned prison was haunted. I am not a believer in ghosts, but I love "haunted" places. I was inspired to finally pay a visit.

My wife, and my 11 year old daughter came along. My 14 year old son opted for a day at home with his video games.
The building was extremely easy to find. In fact, it would have been hard to miss! The imposing stone edifice appears to have been dropped into the middle of an average Philadelphia neighborhood. Homes and businesses face the massive walls on all sides.
It was a brilliant Autumn day.

The structure is a magnificent example of architecture, and of architectural decay! Everywhere you look there are interesting compositions of light and dark. Every turn reveals another scene which inspires awe, irony, or apprehension.
The textures, and colors of the penitentiary's elements were made even more dramatic by the brilliant blue sky, which filtered into the darkened vaults through the many skylights of the corridors, and cells, creating theatrical effects.
My camera was a simple Canon PowerShot S100. Many of the photos were taken without a flash, with a slightly longer exposure setting. I was pleasantly surprised by the results!

Even though we were supplied with an audio tour, and brochures explaining what the tour had to offer, I was too enthralled with the scenes around me to bother reading or listening.

And then we entered cell block 7!
131 dark cells, on two levels, stretching away from us. The open cell doorways revealed nothing but an impenetrable darkness. Something instinctual made me keep a fair distance from the unknown blackness. A humming silence engulfed that huge space. Then, unexpectedly, sharp, quick sounds broke the stillness. "Ting-ting-ting"!
An alarming metallic sound emanated from a nearby cell. Then a wooden "tap-tap-tap", from a cell halfway down the corridor. My skin crawled, and I searched for a logical explanation. "Thud-thud-thud", from the cell directly next to me! Soon the entire cellblock broke into a riot of rhythmic noises. The ghosts of a hundred agitated prisoners were pounding out their protests on whatever noise producing objects they could find!
This was "Pandemonium", an art installation created by Canadian-born artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller!

The melange of loud clinks, bangs, taps, clanks and clunks are generated in 120 of the block's 131 cells by computer-controlled mallets hitting objects such as old desks, buckets, pipes and toilet bowls. The mallets are electronically programmed to "play" a variety of sounds that are sometimes vaguely melodic or rhythmic and at other times more random-sounding. As the sounds travel along the block, they create an initial impression of habitation.

Flash photos revealed two of the the ghostly mechanisms.
The effect is chilling, and poignant. It was a thrilling experience!
If you are too faint of heart to visit the penitentiary's annual Halloween attraction ("Terror Behind the Walls" - rated as one of the top 10 haunted attractions in the U.S.), but you would still like a little Halloween thrill, you must experience "Pandemonium"!

Eastern State Penitentiary has become the home of numerous art exhibits.

Linda Brenner's "Ghost Cats", is a collection of life-sized cat sculptures, which are hidden, and interspersed throughout the public areas of the penitentiary. My daughter kept a list of all of the cats she spotted.

Another terrific display is called "Juxtaposition". It was created by Matt and Jonathan Stemler. This composition was surprising, not just because it is made up of chunks of ceiling plaster suspended mid-way between the floor and ceiling of the cell, but also because Matt Stemler was a buddy of mine in Art School 15 years ago!

The Eastern State Penitentiary tour is an awesome experience! If you are going to be in the Philadelphia area, and enjoy unusual sites, I highly recommend checking it out!
I hope to return very soon!

For more details about the Eastern State Penitentiary, visit their site.