From Cells to Artist Studios at Eastern State Penitentiary Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Eastern State Penitentiary, located on eleven acres at 21st & Fairmount, is one of Philadelphia's great architectural landmarks. The building was conceptualized by architect John Haviland, and opened its doors in 1829. According to the ESP website, the cell blocks were modern marvels, providing central heat and running water before even the White House. By 1971 though, the entire prison was in need of major renovations and instead of performing this cost prohibitive work, the state simply shut it down. Over the next decades, ESP faced various redevelopment plans and many parties wanted to see it demolished. Thankfully, this architectural gem was preserved, and today many sections have been opened to the public for tours. Its most popular attraction happens every fall, when Terror Behind the Walls turns the already spooky prison into a giant haunted prison. Not for nothing, but it's terrifying.
In the image above, taken from the ESP brochure, you can see that some of the buildings inside the giant stone walls are included on tours of the prison, but others are closed to the public. It's a combination of a funding issue and the fact that there's only so much old prison that people can reasonably expect to enjoy on any given tour. After awhile, all those old prison cells start to look alike, even though the early buildings are disinct from the newer structures. Still, it's safe to say that several of the cellblocks won't be a part of tours any time soon.
With that in mind, ESP is now in the early stages of a proposal to convert cellblock 5 into something altogether different. This building, located in the northeast corner of the parcel, was built during the second wave of cellblock construction, in the mid 1830s. It includes two levels of sixty-six former cells, and if everything goes according to plan, those former cells will be turned into 132 artist studios. This renovation will cost approximately $11.5M, and ESP expects to cover about 80% of the cost through a combination of grants, federal dollars, and state funds. The rest of the money will come from monthly rental fees, which will be around $150 per studio.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this plan will be the proposed entrance to the studios. In the interest of protecting the rest of the historic prison, ESP will seek to cut an entrance into the stone wall just outside of cellblock 5, near the corner of 22nd & Brown and around the corner from a playground. They'll then fence-in the studio building, along with a new building that will include restrooms. In order to move forward with this, ESP is going to need permission from the Historical Commission and we won't try to predict what they'll say about the plan. In addition, they'll need to go before the community and the ZBA, since the parcel is for some reason zoned for multi-family use. We'll wager that parking will be an issue that comes up at those meetings.
This plan, assuming it gets the necessary approvals, will be a wonderful way to increase the presence of artists in this neighborhood. Studio space has increasingly been relegated to areas farther away from Center City, like Kensington and deep South Philly, and this would create an influx of culture for the Fairmount, Francisville, and Spring Garden neighborhoods. And who knows, if it's a big success, we could imagine a similar treatment for one or two of the other unused cellblocks. As for whether it will get approved and just as importantly, whether artists will rush to rent studios made from former jail cells, that remains to be seen.
Update: Just because this was a gag story for April Fools' Day doesn't mean it's not a decent idea.