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Bringing the Outside In: Philadelphia Penitentiary

Outside in_Philidelphia Penitentiary2

As you know, I visited Philadelphia a few months ago and have blogged about it here. It is a fascinating place full of history and brilliant stories of days gone by.

We took ourselves off to the Eastern State Penitentiary and were fascinated by what we found. The penitentiary is America’s most historic prison (Philadelphia seems to have the most historic everything in America..)

Before it was built in 1829, prisons were no more than large holding pens for men, women and children. The idea behind this new prison was ‘to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.’. It was built around the Quaker idea of isolation, reflection and change. This meant that no prisoner was ever to see another during their time spent there. In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence.

The design of the prison is incredible. An architectural feat. It’s built like a perfect circle- a radial floor plan- so the guard could stand at the centre and see every single cell in each wing from the one central spot. The design ended up being used in a further 300 prisons around the world.

Al Capone was a prisoner there at some point for 12 months. If you go and visit the penitentiary you can still see his cell. Strangely, he was allowed luxuries that no other inmate was allowed- I’m talking a comfortable reading chair, desk, writing equipment and a radio! No one is really sure how he was given more rights than other inmates..

The whole place is pretty spooky, and literally crumbling around you. All the solitary cells have stone and plaster on the floors- one has a tree growing through it- it’s a ruin.

Check out my interiors inspired by Eastern State above!


1. Langton triple wire shelf, Joss and Main | 2. Concrete lamp, Serax at Goodhood | 3. Ercol Svelto wide media unit, Heal’s | 4. Scented soap stones, Goodhood | 5. Sylvia tea set, Anthropologie.


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