About the sales of holiday trees in front of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), we spoke with ESP's Sean Kelly, who explained the situation to us in more detail. He says it's not true that the family that owned the business was told not to come back. Over time, he says, things have changed for Eastern State, and the operating models didn't really jibe anymore.
Years ago, Eastern State wasn't open in the winter, so this wasn't an issue. The family sold the trees out of the prison's gatehouse, in fact, and had access to storage, electricity and facilities. When the prison started to have open hours in the winter, it got a bit more complicated, and as traffic has grown each year, there have been more requests from ESP, like, maybe this year you can move a little farther away from the door?
Nowadays, ESP gets hundreds of visitors even in the winter; attendance has tripled in the last six years. Tourists now consider ESP an important landmark in the city, and it was hard to imagine what throngs of guests were thinking when they walked through a gauntlet of tree trimming and chainsaws. It was an odd fit.
There was a sentimental reason, though, that the relationship kept going. A tree has always been put on the top of the prison in honor of a child who died in the neighborhood. And there was significant community attachment. Even so, the tree-selling was a business operating on a City of Philadelphia property that was preserved to operate as a National Historic Landmark. How to make those two dovetail? People would come from all over the world to see ESP, to take their photos, and they'd end up with photos of Christmas trees lined up against its walls.
Every year ESP and the family negotiated so that the first priority—preserving the ESP experience for visitors—could be honored. But it just got harder and harder to make it all work, though Kelly notes that ESP always put effort into making sure the business could stay there as long as possible.
Kelly says the family got to a point where it wasn't making sense to them anymore to operate a business on the site of a historic landmark. He also says relations between ESP and the family remain very good.
Now if only former ESP inmate and tour guide William Barnes would be released already...