Marking Pennsylvania History

Buying Time for Eastern State

Imagination at the right time and at the right place can make a difference - sometimes all the difference.

Back in 1988, no one could foresee much of a future for Eastern State Penitentiary, then an abandoned and defunct prison. But two special people, one in government and the other in philanthropy, imagined, acted, and re-made history on Fairmount Avenue.

One these people was former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who was willing to give time with advocates for preservation. The other was the late Ella King Torrey, who is remembered for the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, which buys time for artists and writers. Ella should also be remembered for a specific act of vision in 1988, when she bought time for this abandoned landmark.

In the 1980s, only an occasional handful of visitors ever ventured inside the penitentiary, which had closed in 1971. It was not as if folks didn't think about the future of this Gothic-Revival landmark. Sooner or later, everyone knew, the question of what would become of this gray, squatting square of crenellated ashlar would have to be answered. But without proper intelligence, answers were inadequate and elusive.

That did not stop the site's owner, the City of Philadelphia, from opening the site to developers. Several were interested, although no one knew enough, or cared enough, to make preservation a priority. It seemed that time had run out - that a bad reuse was better than no reuse at all.

In an act of brinkmanship, advocates for doing nothing - and I was one of them - met with the Mayor. It was only a gesture, giving an audience to a loosely knit coalition of neighborhood residents, historians, architects, and preservationists calling itself the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force. Mayor Goode had only fifteen minutes to spare. But the idea of rushing into an irreversible decision about an intact century-and-a-half-old National Historical Landmark caught his imagination. Forty-five minutes later, we were still talking and Mayor Goode was still listening. And a few days later, his decision was official: preservation had prevailed. Problem was, this penniless task force now had an even greater challenge - to come up with a reasonable, achievable, and ultimately sustainable plan.

A few weeks later, a small contingent of the Task Force and sat at another table, this time at The Pew Charitable Trusts. We were ticking off a list of studies and programs that would tell everyone what exactly what was behind those walls at Eastern State. The site had never been evaluated or interpreted as a landmark. It needed an historic structures report, a re-use study, an oral history, an interpretative publication, and an exhibition. How much would all of this cost? When the list was finished, Ella King Torrey, on the Pew side of the table, confidently tossed off a figure: "Sounds like $400,000," she said. "Can you get a proposal done in two weeks?"

No problem.

Visionary leadership enabled the site to bring in a team of experts, develop a stack of intelligence, and have more than five years of time. It was time enough to develop a plan, build a constituency, open to the public, and demonstrate success. Ten years later, thanks to these two visionaries, and their willingness to act, this popular site is open, online, and innovative beyond expectation.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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