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Eastern State Penitentiary: Then and Now

Check out before-after photos of the first penitentiary in the U.S.

A black and white photo of the entrance to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was the first penitentiary in the country.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

For many people, tourists and locals alike, Eastern State Penitentiary is known for transforming into a glorified haunted house every Halloween. But the colossal Gothic Revival prison in Fairmount is steeped in history, too. When it opened in 1829 it became one of the most famous and expensive prisons in the world and the first penitentiary in the country.

But while people first flocked to Philadelphia to see this immense architectural feat, Eastern State Penitentiary eventually closed in 1971. Today, the historic landmark is open for daily tours year-round and nightly tours during the Halloween season.

Here, take a trip down memory lane to see how much (or little) the penitentiary has changed over the years, all while learning a little more about the prison’s history.

Aerial View (1955 vs. 2011)—Designed by architect John Haviland, Eastern State Penitentiary was groundbreaking in that it was the first prison designed to make prisoners feel true regret and penitence for their crimes. The penitentiary sat on 11 acres of farmland called Cherry Hill.

Source: Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary (1920s) and Albert Vecerka (2001)
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Exterior (1920s vs. 2001)—Haviland designed the penitentiary, which opened in 1829, but it didn’t actually finish construction until 1836 to the tune of $772,600.69. His original designs called for more of a Greek Temple look, but eventually transformed into the Gothic castle structure that stands today.

Source: Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

Al Capone’s Cell (1998 vs. 2002)—When the infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone was sentenced to prison, he spent the year 1929-30 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Cell Block 8, Cell 1. His was as comfy and luxurious any prison cell could be. These photos show how his cell was restored to its original state.

Source: Library of Congress and Jeff Fusco (2010) for Eastern State Penitentiary
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Cell Block 7 (1998 vs. Today)—Prisoners, when they weren’t sitting in solitary confinement in their solo cells, had to wear bags over their heads and were left to their own thoughts. Cell block 7 was the last built under the original construction, and only opened to the public for the first time in 2005.

Eastern State Penitentiary

2027 Fairmount Avenue, , PA 19130 Visit Website

Philadelphia

, , PA

Fairmount

, , PA 19130