Archive for the ‘Unusual Homes / Buildings’ Category

Kip’s Castle

Note: This blog entry was written in 2005 and, obviously, some things have changed. This article is presently being updated to include the changes.

Frederick Kip was a textile magnate who moved to the United States from Europe in 1902. The story, as it is commonly told, is that Kip’s castle was transported stone by stone from Europe to Montclair, NJ and reassembled next to the Klasztor Salvatorian Fathers Monastery. The 9,000 SF Norman Castle style mansion has 30 completely recreated rooms including the original stained glass windows, wood banisters, old-English quarter-sawn oak paneling, turrets, arches and deep set windows set on every wall – even a small chapel complete with mahogany mantelpiece. Large iron gates complete with giant stone pillars on either side frame the driveway entrance. The driveway itself is a long, winding switchback road that snakes up the hill in 3 lengths, the side of which is lit by lamp poles spaced every 50-100 feet.

I received an email from a relative of Kip which disputes the story I mentioned above, about how Kip’s Castle was built and its origins. Regardless of its origin, the castle in its heyday was large and ornate, but most of the internal beauty did not survive thanks to the actions of the second owners. In 1980 the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh came to America from India, allegedly seeking medical treatment. In reality he was fleeing tax evasion and other criminal charges. The Bhagwan, a self appointed spiritual guru since the early 1970s, taught an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, individual devotion, and most notoriously, sex. His followers, many of them well-educated, middle class citizens, surrendered all their worldly goods to him, some even changing their names. By the time the Bhagwan came to the US, he had amassed over 400 centers world-wide with over 200,000 followers.

To announce his arrival in the US, the Bhagwan placed ads in Time magazine proclaiming spirituality through sexual freedom. He also purchased the castle after being influenced by his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who had attended Montclair State University. Residents of Montclair and the surrounding towns were not overly pleased with this development as hundreds, even thousands, of red-and-orange robed followers of the Bhagwan flooded into the area, renting or buying almost every available housing space just to be near their spiritual leader. “We are very concerned about our property values, our children and about this becoming an international HQ for a free-sex cult,” said one Montclair resident in a newspaper interview.

The Bhagwan promptly covered the old stone walls of the castle with sheet rock, the wood floors with linoleum, and the stained glass windows were smashed to allegedly prevent the followers from being influenced by “materialism”. But Montclair residents had no need to worry for long – the Bhagwan as it turns out, had bigger plans. The following year, he purchased a 65,000 acre ranch in Oregon and moved himself and his followers out of NJ.

The Bhagwhan called the Oregon property Rancho Rajneesh. The 100 square mile commune, eventually known as Rajneeshpurum had its own airport, restaurants, and police force. The Bhagwan would visit small local towns each day, slowly converting the town into part of his commune. The process was quite simple, and reminiscent of tactics used in European invasions. If you inject your own culture into another, eventually your culture drives out the original culture. When the Ranjeesh followers would finally outnumber the local residents, they would elect other members of the group to be mayor, council members and other political office. Before long, the nearby town of Antelope, Oregon was absorbed into the compound. (Looks like Montclair really dodged a bullet on that one!)

The Bhagwan’s success would not last, however. His second in command fled the country with a large amount of the Bhagwan’s money after she was accused of arson and attempted murder. She was arrested in West Germany and extradited back to the US. By now the Bhagwan had attracted the attention of several government agencies including the Attorney General’s Office as well as Immigration. He was arrested and charged with immigration violations, pled guilty to 2 counts and was fined 400,000 and forced to serve his suspended sentence outside the US. Much like that garbage boat which tried to enter country after country without success before being sent home, he finally was able to return to his native India where he died of heart failure a few years later. The city of Rajneesh, Oregon reverted to its original name Antelope, after the state determined that the conversion of the town violated separation of church and state.

Back in Montclair, in 1984, Kip’s Castle was bought by the law offices of Schwartz, Tobia and Stanziale (purchase price: $850,000). Nearly twenty years later, the lawyers are planning to move, and there is a very real chance that Kip’s Castle may be knocked down to create condos and townhouses. The asking price for Kip’s Castle, the carriage house and the 15 acres of property is $4.8 million, but it is believed that the proposed development is worth upwards of $30 million.

The future of the Castle is bleak, which is why the Preservation NJ website, which focuses on preserving historic buildings and properties that are threatened by neglect or development, considered it one of the most threatened properties in Essex County. It will take a great amount of money and willpower to buy the property and resist the urge to develop it in the manner which has been proposed. Clearly, there is big money to be made. It remains to be seen whether money or history will prevail.

I was really impressed with the castle. Inside & out you can tell it was made with high quality material and built with old fashioned quality hand construction. Sure, the inside now has standard plaster walls and modern lighting, but it’s not hard to imagine what this building must have been like at the turn of the 20th century. What will become of the property is still an unknown, but I will always remember my visit to Kip’s Castle. There simply is nothing else like it in North Jersey that I know of. The office manager was extremely nice and showed me just about the entire building, pointing out interesting features such as the expensive Dutch tile (called Delft) used to cover the walls of the bathroom, and the curved glass windows in the waiting area. I must say a big thank you to the law office of Schwartz, Tobia and Stanziale for granting me a brief visit to the property.

More pictures of Kip’s Castle can be found here

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Gods Ark of Safety, Frostburg, MD


While driving along Route 68 in rural Maryland you might see this large partially constructed building, its steel beams connected to one another but never finished, and you might keep on driving not even giving it another thought. “Just another unfinished building” you might think as you continue on west towards Virginia or West Virginia or points beyond. But you’d be wrong. It isn’t an unfinished building, it’s an unfinished ark, as in the Noah’s Ark. In 1974 Pastor Richard Greene proclaimed that Jesus told him to build an ark. The ark would be a full size replica of the original Ark constructed by Noah before the biblical floods. 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high it would serve as church and a conference center to help- meet the needs of the church and the community at large. Donations were collected but construction did not begin until 1999. 13 years later the project appears to have stalled as donations have slowed considerably. Whether it will be finished is unclear as the church seems unfazed by this fact. They believe it has drawn attention to the church and helped shine a light on the teachings of God and is a reminder that one day Jesus will return, taking his followers with him to heaven.

You can learn more by visiting their website at You can visit the ark at 18606 Cherry Lane, Frostburg, MD, and it is viewable from Highway 68 just after exit 34

Coast Guard selling off two lighthouses to the top bidder

The lighthouses need a lot of work however. About 5-6 years ago I convinced the Coast Guard to let me go w/them on one of their spring maitenance runs to all the lighthouses in the delaware bay so I got to visit them up close. Some of them are only accessible by climbing a ladder from a rocking board deck up to the lighthouse because they’re built on top of a submerged shoal. Yhose were fun to climb. I am not sure if I ever posted pictures or not but if I didn’t I’ll have to post those. Lighthouses, especially those away from the coastline are amazing, I can only imagine what it must be like to be in one during a severe storm all alone. I’m going to see if I can contact the person who buys this one (if it sells) and interview them for a project I am working on. Should be interesting to see how they restore it to liveable conditions.

If you’re thinking of going to midgetville: DON’T. You will be busted.

I happened to be in the area and felt like driving down Annie’s Road. When we got to midgetville I was tempted to pull in just to see what’s changed in the couple of years since I last visited. I know there’s been a few incidents with paintballs being shot so i expected to be eyeballed. I’m not a kid, I have my wife and son in the car so I figured at best I’d get a look see but no trouble. I passed the first entrance, figured I’d go to the second entrance… and discovered it’s been sealed off, barricaded by giant concrete highway dividers.

So if you go in, you have to exit the way you came in. Cause any troubles, you aren’t getting out. More then likely if you pull into their street you will be questioned since there’s only 6-7 houses and everybody knows everybody and their car. Anyone who doesn’t belong will stick out. This means you.

Luna Parc

When one enters the gates of Luna Parc, you are welcomed by colorful signs, whimsical mailboxes and a sidewalk covered entirely in various colored tiles. In fact it seems almost everything is covered in beautiful tile work, and not those 4×4 inch tiles you find in the bathroom. I mean intricately designed, hand laid pieces of tile. There is also a sense of whimsy to the designs, almost Dr Seuss like in the way pieces curve and move, and how different elements are married together, such as this mailbox.

There were plates of every color all arranged neatly, same with a half dozen plastic colanders hanging from the ceiling. There is all sorts of art work and carvings all thruout the house, and various collections, such as a collection of dice, numerous lava lamps, and even a gigantic fishbowl full of the plastic snap on pieces that close off a loaf of bread….

By far the coolest room was the bathroom. First of all this as the biggest bathroom I’ve ever been in, easily 20 feet wide. More importantly it was  a circle, and everything was against a wall with an overhead shower in the middle of the room. As expected the entire room was covered with beautiful tile work, and color flowed (literally) thru a series of differently colored gravy boats. I won’t even talk about the bidet….

Ricky grew up in Morris County, and in the mid 80’s had started looking for a place of his own. The building was in major need of repair, but Ricky immediately was able to envision it the way he wanted, and has spent 15 years working on his art, and working on the property which is still a work in progress.  He often asks for help with supplies whenever he needs a large quantity of a certain materials (such as large quantities of   Mrs Butterworth bottles), to the point where sometimes the yard looks like a junkyard. The 5 acre property has art everywhere, from the enjoy bench to the tiled covered table to the Eiffel tower made from bowling trophies. Then there are small little houses (huts might be a better word) that remind me of little displays you’d find at those winter wonderland sections you find at stores that sells gardening supplies.

One of the huts will be a Christmas themed hut, which will either be Santa’s workshop, or more likely a place where kids meet Santa. Another hut was based on a story told to him by his father. While in Italy, a big whig in the Catholic church, possibly the Pope, but I believe more likely to be a bishop, visited this small poor town. A boy on crutches ambled by and the bishop declared the boy healed, and voila! so he was. The boy threw away his crutches and walked normally from then on. The hut is dedicated to religious icons, miracles and faith, complete with a half dozen discarded crutches outside.

In Ricky’s workshop was displayed all of his jewelry, which, I must say was absolutely gorgeous. he had small and large pieces, intricate and simple pieces, pieces for the bookshelf, and pieces to be work. He really is very talented as a jewelry maker, and one piece caught my eye, pictured below. I believe it went for $300.

Although you can not visit his home except by invitation, you can see his work at craft shows and fairts in the tri-state area, visit his webpage for details on where and when he’ll be on display.

36 more homes to be torn down in Hoffman grove

Part of federal buyout plan

IN A MATTER of weeks, 36 homes in Wayne will no longer exist, and, uncharacteristically for New Jersey, nothing will be built in their place. These are houses whose home is a flood plain — first to fill with water from the Pompton River, last to dry. For years, residents in the Hoffman Grove neighborhood have endured the river’s swell, their homes overtaken by the flow, then left damp and moldy in the ebb.

More than inconvenient, the area is seen as dangerous to residents and first responders, and expensive to insure. And so begins part two of the biggest home buyout in the state, in which Wayne pays market rate for 105 houses located well within the Passaic River basin. “If we save one life, we are making a truly significant impact,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Little of the state Office of Emergency Management told The Record.

And that makes it worth every penny. Wayne has spent $500,000 of its own money so far, and $10.5 million in federal and state funds. The first phase of the buyout last year resulted in 34 houses being razed. There are about 105 houses in all. Flooding is also expensive. Wayne takes second place in the state for property lost in flooding, Staff Writer Andrea Alexander wrote Friday. Atlantic City is first. In 2007, the year of the terrible April nor’easter, the National Flood Insurance Program paid $152.6 million for more than 7,000 claims made by New Jersey residents. Returning Hoffman Grove to its natural state is the only answer.

unusual buildings now home to quirky food eateries

like burgers from a gas station or hot dogs from a railroad car

Burgers from a gas station? Coffee from a Fotomat? Hot dogs from a train? Yes, in North Jersey you can get all three — as well as prosciutto from a bank, espresso from a train station and cocktails from an 18th-century barn. Thanks to pricey real estate, the area has become home to some interestingly set restaurants — some of which you may have driven past a thousand times, never knowing they served food.

Here are a few worth checking out next time you pass:

Roseee’s Filling Station: 79 Harrison Ave., Garfield; 973-478-7674.

You don’t have to think too hard to figure out what this roadside diner used to be. The former Sunoco gas station has retained much of its auto-themed past, filling up customers with uniquely named salads and sandwiches in the two-bay garage where tune-ups and oil changes were performed prior to 2000.

Longfellow’s Coffee 2 Kiel Ave. (corner of Route 23 and Kinnelon Road), Kinnelon; 973-283-1551 or

If you drove up to the 7-by-17-foot kiosk prior to 2004, you could get photos printed, copied or enlarged in a parking lot Fotomat. Now you can get coffee, lattes and other hot and cold beverages, all without getting out of your car.

Hot Dog Caboose 211 Greenwood Ave., Midland Park; 201-444-2531 or

The 100-year-old caboose, which pulled up the rear of an operational train in Pennsylvania until the mid-1970s, previously acted as a gift shop and model train store in its current location. Since 2006, it’s ditched the Lionel memorabilia in favor of serving jazzed-up Sabrett hot dogs, hot sausages, ice cream and soda.

La Strada Deli 231 Godwin Ave., Midland Park; 201-670-9233 or

These days, the only accounts being balanced at this former New Jersey First National Bank are those of local diners picking up lunch. Since 1993, Italian favorites have filled the renovated space, homemade stromboli and bruschetta among them. Other chilled items are kept safe in the downstairs walk-in refrigerator positioned in an old vault.

Café Angelique 1 Piermont Road, Tenafly; 201-541-1010 or

The Tenafly railroad station has seen its fair share of history between its opening in 1872 and closing to passenger trains in 1966. It’s also seen some since, having served as a clothing store, a beauty salon and, beginning in 2004, an upscale French-inspired café where coffee and confections are always pulling into the station.

The Barn359 Sicomac Ave., Wyckoff; 201-848-0108 or

In 1779, in the midst of an agrarian age, the building was erected as a barn. In the early 1920s, it was converted into a tearoom. And in 1929, in the midst of Prohibition, it was flipped into a speakeasy, providing homemade booze for workers from the local silk mills. The food followed soon thereafter. In May, The Barn will celebrate its 80th anniversary as a burger, rib and steak joint where the booze flows legally and only the diners graze.

Terror Behind the Walls

One innovative use of the prison is a Halloween event called Terror Behind the Walls”, a scare fest filled with ghouls, gore and gallons of blood. It is easily the best haunted scare place my wife I have ever been to. Understand that we do not give such praise lightly. For my wife and I, Halloween is the bomb, it’s the shit, it is the best holiday of the whole year. I love decorating the house, I loved going to haunted scary places, I love Halloween parties. if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t have gotten married 10/22 we would’ve waited till 10/31 and had a Halloween wedding. We even discuss redoing our vows and doing it on Halloween. But what’s the point? Spending that money for something we already did? Screw that, I’d rather put the cash towards a house. But I digress….

We both worked at a haunted greenhouse for several years and we had a ball. My wife was a guide and I played a variety of roles through the years, the best of which as eye-gore, the brother Igor, and I had my one eye covered with blood and gore and makeup, I was truly disgusting. One of my best shticks ever was when I tucked this small rubber rat, maybe 2 inches long but with a 4 inch tail, inside my cheek along with a small amount of fake blood. I would come out at the guests and babble away and eventually one of them would notice the tail sticking out of my mouth, and I would say “Where are my manners? You look hungry… I’ve already eaten but perhaps there’s something I could bring up for you,…” then I start making these horrible disgusting retching sounds. I’d slowly regurgitate the rat and offer it to the guests, often the blood would just flow from my mouth, sometimes drip down my chin, it was very disgusting I must say. I got THE BEST reactions from people, sometimes I’d chase them around offering them some dinner.

The place we used to work at is under new management and sadly it sucketh. I think a lot of haunted scare type places suck for a variety of reasons. Too much talking is usually the biggest reason. If you have q group you can scare and then intimidate and work off of, then the talking works, but if the crowd isn’t buying it, it’s like watching them die a slow death as they go thru their tired routines. I think most guests nowadays aren’t buying the doctor’s lab, the mad scientists kitchen or dining room, and even reanimating Frankenstein is old. And chasing them out the final room with Jason/Freddy/Leatherface is sooooo predictable. It’s been done to death. Talking rooms are just so predictable it’s boring.

The only way to really get people is with shocks and unexpected surprises. Innovative use of darkness, fog, noises, hidden panels, smoke, mirrors, robe lights and so forth. TBTW at ESP does this with more intensity then any place I’ve ever been. For a jaded scarefan like us to give this place enthusiastic thumbs up is saying something. (yeah I sound egotistical when I say that, but it really takes a lot to scare us or impress us and they did both). TBTW at ESP also has professional makeup jobs and incredibly good prosthetics and costumes. You can tell this isn’t done by teenagers in a trailer fighting over makeup supplies (ahhh the memories of scrounging to find a virgin piece of stipple…) The attention to detail shows, and really elevates it to the next level.

When you go to TBTW at ESP you should make reservations because otherwise the lines get long, however having a reservation at 7PM does not mean you go into the event at that time. There is a line outside, you then enter the walls of the prison, you give up your ticket, and then you have a choice. You can wait in the (potentially) long, or pay $5 more (per person mind you) and go to the front of the line. Unless the line is obscenely log, don’t take the fast pass. We had to wait 45 minutes or so but they run TV on an endless loop which features information about the prison, as well as clips from the MTV show fear which did an episode here. This, along with the prison spotlights and the actors running around scaring the crap out of the waiting customers.

I must say that one reason why I enjoyed myself so much has nothing to do with TBTW, it has to do with the company I kept. My wife’s girlfriends boyfriend Mimmo (rhymes with Nemo the fish)  is such a scardey cat that we were pissing in our pants, alternately from being scared to laughing our asses off at him. There were times he was cowering behind the women, and other times we had to shove him down the corridor because he would not move forward. My wife had bruised wrists like Michael Jackson’s after he got arrested in Santa Barbara… At one point a ghoul started bothering him, then came to bother me, and I kept pointing back to Mimmo, and of course that made him nearly shit his pants. It’s always fun when you go with someone who is genuinely terrified.
What awaits you inside the walls? I won’t bother to describe what you’ll find inside as a) it should be obvious, b) I couldn’t possibly describe it that well it happens so fast, and  c) why would I want to ruin it for you? I will say that they make extremely good use of fog, 3-D, hiding places, and sound… If you don’t believe me and my egotistic attitude, then ask who just rated it the best haunted attraction in the PA/NJ/DE area.

It turns out that the same guy who helped design Universal Studios Haunted attractions and Madison Scare Garden (both of which we’ve attended and thought highly of) was involved in the design of this place. From what I read, TPTW has been around for 6 years but initially wasn’t much more then a guide telling ghost stories. Not very chilling. With the recent redesign, they’ve established themselves as the place to go to get scared at Halloween.

MTV Filmed a segment of Fear here. Numerous documentaries about the prison have been filmed here as well as ones on ghosts. Here are’s final words on the subject: With proceeds going to such a worthy cause (the preservation of an amazing piece of architectural history), it is a bonus that we just can’t resist. Neither can we. Do yourself a favor. Make reservations, and get here during daylight to tour the prison, then  go eat dinner and come back to get scared. It’s a day well spent.

Read about the history of the prison here

Read about the tour of Eastern State Prison here

A tour of Eastern State Prison

I had heard about this prison and its tour through the Terror Behind the Walls Halloween website. I had suggested to my friends that we visit TBTW after visiting Skillman since we’d be down that way, and when we got kicked out early, my wife’s girlfriend said we should take the prison tour. I initially resisted, hoping to visit Ancora and a few weird virtuals, but the others won out, and in retrospect I’m glad they did.

The tours are self guided, using the same kind of audio set & headphones you get if you visit Ellis island. You walk around and certain spots are marked by a number, which corresponds to a certain track on the audio. They claim the tour takes 45 minutes but to be honest I could’ve spent twice that long if we hadn’t arrived with only an hour till the prison closed. The tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi who found ESP while checking locations for a movie he was looking to make. At the time he visited the prison was not in any shape to be toured, and he took interest in the prison and the effort to restore and preserve it.

You enter the massive gates of the prison, and then walk thru some narrow tunnels to a cashier who gives you the audio tour headsets. You then enter the prison yard and begin a slow tour of many of the wings and facilities. Among highlights you see the cell where Al Capone stayed, death row, and cell of bank robber Willie Sutton.  You see the cells themselves, along the way  hearing interviews with guards, prisoners and administrators, describing the way life was in the prison.

When you finally exit the rear of the main building you exit into a exercise yard where inmates played baseball and football. Among the more interesting facts is that when player hit home runs out of the prison often the residents outside would throw the balls back in. Little did the guards know that often these baseballs were plants stuffed with drugs or weapons!

As you walk through the hallways, peer into the cells, and listen to the stories it is impossible to come out of there without being affected by the stories that are told. Even though I took the tour with friends, the tour made me feel as if Steve was talking to me personally and singularly. As I walked the halls my wife and friends seemed to be irrelevant, as I was engrossed by the tales of solitary confinement, the mental illness, the disease, and the fears of both the prisoners and the guards. I felt quite alone myself.
Unfortunately the tour ended early since we arrived so late. We were unable to spend much time in death row, or to linger over an art project about the cruelty of the death penalty being used on children. There are more art projects planned, and the prison often hosts special events. This is without a doubt one of the most visually interesting places you can visit, and one of the oldest buildings you will likely ever get a chance to tour. it is well worth the trip, just make sure to give yourself at least 2 hours to fully appreciate the facilities. Afterwards there is a small museum area with items from the prison including the lock and key for the original front gate which still works 180 years later!

The prison is located at Fairmount Ave & 22nd Ave in Philadelphia and is open from April 1 until just after Thanksgiving. Private tours can be scheduled at any time, even during the winter. For information call 215 236-5111 x12. One of the more fascinating things I read was that the prison was a popular tourist attraction, even when it was open. Supposedly was as popular as Niagara Falls or the Capitol Building. Between 1862 and 1872 over 100,000 people visited the prison.

Read about the history of the prison here

Read my take on Terror Behind the Walls here (a Halloween attraction held in the confines of ESP)

All the photos here

The history of Eastern State Prison

When you think of a jail (the building not just a single cell) what do you think of? Take away the barbed wire and fences and bars, and most jails look remarkably like any other type of building. Local or city jails often exist within other buildings such as police stations or courts. County and federal prisons? Again, take away the security and they could almost pass for something else. But there is one prison in the area that is very different. if you walk past this building you know instinctively what this building is for. You know who lives here and why. The building inspires fear, awe, reverence, and a desire to never ever go there. That’s exactly what the architect had in mind….


Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia, PA was the first every attempt by the state to use incarceration and specifically solitary confinement as a form of punishment. In the 1800’s punishment generally consisted of fines, public humiliation (such as the stocks), whipping, banishment to a penal colony, and of course execution. American justice was often simply a variation of the justice systems of Europe.

In Europe often the church would be responsible for punishment for “crimes” in part because in many areas, the church WAS the state, or they were very closely tired together, almost to be inseparable. The church historically has opposed capital punishment, and so they developed a system of punishment in line with the Catholic or Christian doctrines. Whenever possible, prisoners were kept in isolation from each other, keeping in the tradition of silence and penitence typical in monastic orders.

By the 1600’s some courts in the Netherlands began experimenting with imprisonment coupled with hard labor. By the end of the 18th century large groups of men woman & children were housed in communal jail cells, some chained to the wall, sleeping on bare floors with little heat or food. If they could afford to pay the jailer, they would live and sleep in better conditions. John Howard, a sheriff in Bedfordshire England began studying the European prisons and concluded that long term prisoners should be held in isolation for “long hours of thoughtfulness and reflection”. With innovative construction, supervision could be done with less expense, and less overhead, would reduce the spread of disease, and ultimately reform the convict.

After Howard reported his findings and opinions, nothing happened initially. Gaol fever was rampant, killing prisoners and citizens alike by the hundreds, even thousands. The US colonies were now no longer part of the British empire, so England couldn’t just ship its prisoners there. They established penal colonies in Australia and New Zealand, but eventually pressure mounted to build full scale penitentiaries. It was hoped that isolation and improved sanitary conditions would reduce the spread of the disease in the prisons.
By 1816 most of the isolation based prisons were converted to traditional prison models. Cost was a large factor in the decision. In the county of Gloucestershire, 60% of the county budget went to the maintaining of the prisons. As England was moving away from solitary confinement, the US was moving towards it…

A group of reformers, called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (later shorted to just the Pennsylvania Prison Society) was founded by members of the clergy, the law, and the medical establishment. The group was aware f the failures in Europe but felt that they could overcome the obstacles that caused the European models to fail. In 1790 they attempted to modify an existing prison, the Walnut St prison, but the experiment failed, largely due to overcrowding. The Society believed that a larger reason for failure was that they were modifying an existing prison, which proved difficult and required modification of their ideas. If they built a new prison from scratch, they could design it exactly as they had envisioned. At about the same time as the Walnut Street jail was being modified, NY was also trying its hand at solitary confinement, also by modifying an existing jail. By 1823 the NY experiment was deemed a failure, much like the Walnut St jail, and largely for the same reasons…

The members of the Prison Society agreed on the concept of solitary confinement but disagreed over whether or not there should be forced labor. Construction began on Western State Prison in Pittsburgh in 1818, and Eastern State Prison in 1821. WSP opened in 1826. Inadequate heating, bad ventilation, and a lack of truly sanitary facilities led to the closure of the prison within 7 years, and it was soon torn down.  This did not bode well, but by the time WSP closed its doors, the doors at ESP had already opened. And the world was watching….


The design of each cell was important as the design of the prison as a whole. Each cell needed plumbing facilities and heat, as well as room enough to exercise and perform labor. Ventilation was also essential, but more importantly, they had to prevent escapes. Two architects submitted designs, and the circular design of William Strickland was chosen. During the design phase, few initially supported the design offered by John Haviland, but slowly he gained more supporters. After agreeing to Strickland’s design, those in charge eventually changed their minds and added Havilands outer wall design. Shortly after construction began, the prison decided to go with all of Havilland’s plan, and Strickland was sacked as the head architect and builder. The reason was simple: on paper, Haviland’s plan was cheaper to build, cheaper to maintain. As originally planned, 250 inmates would be housed here, with construction budgeted at 100,000 (1.2 million in 2002 money).

One of the first things built was the outer wall, which made use of the gothic style including castellated guard towers, a portcullis and blank windows. It was meant to be a physical reminder to the citizens of their fate should they choose to break the law. This would be the focus of a lot of criticism as it was expensive, and deemed by many to be an unnecessary waste of money. As the construction went along, the design changed often. Haviland was a relative inexperienced architect and builder and as he went along he learned a lot, which caused him to make design changes for the better. Furthermore, before construction was even half way finished it was clear that the prison was going to be too small for the number of prisoners slated to occupy it.

The original design had 7 spokes coming from a central hub where the guards would be located. From here they could see each cell block. After the first 4 blocks were built, the design changed to add a second level of cells. The final design provided for 450 individual cells, and by 1936 311 of them had been constructed.  Heating and ventilation proved most difficult. Stoves generated heat which was fed through pipes, but the accompanying carbon dioxide sickened many inmates, so a change was made to hot water generated stream which was then fed into each cell. Unfortunately the discharge pipes for the privies were located close to the hot water pipes, resulting in a rather disgusting smell that would cling to you if you just walked thru the halls….

Before construction was finished, a war was going on over the concept of isolation. As would be expected, expense and the affect of isolation on the inmates sanity were the primary complaints. One of the biggest detractors was Charles Dickens who considered isolation to be inhumane. most criticisms were ignored by the state, which pressed on with construction. Tourists, foreign dignitaries and government leaders all took tours. Indeed the world was watching.

From the start isolation proved nearly impossible. Inmates were used in housekeeping and the kitchen, or to make repairs. Despite efforts to prevent it, prisoners could communicate by tapping on the water pipes, or by throwing weighted notes thru the skylights into the cells next to them. The skylights were nailed shut. But this did not stop the prisoners from communicating or from seeing each other. Forced labor was done in each cell without the benefit of machinery, a distinct disadvantage compared to the forced labor done in other prisons, or in factories on the outside. After many years of success, the prisoners were left to make good for use in the prison only, and not for sale to the outside world.

Criticism of the solitary method continued well after ESP was built. Any look at ESP though must be weight against conditions at other prisons at the time, not against current prisons facilities. Most prisons barely had heat (if at all), poor ventilation and little if any natural light. Most cells were much smaller then the ones at ESP. Cells at Sing-Sing in NY measured 3 feet 3 inches by seven feet, barely big enough for a bed and a toilet. Labor was forced and silence was mandatory when outside the cell. Those who favored the solitary method as well those who argued against both often ignored the failures and inadequacies of their own systems. The prison ultimately failed to produce reforms, and was more expensive then traditional designs which was a major impediment to it being implemented widespread in the US. That’s not to say that numerous states didn’t copy the Haviland model. Many did, however the design was quite popular around the world, including England, where the concept had been tried and deemed a failure. It was Havilands innovative architecture design that gave others reason to reexamine the idea, and to try it again.

In 1937 the prison removed the old portcullis and installed a new front gate not in line with rest of the facade. The promise of reform was no more. This was now a penitentiary like any other. Eventually a new ESP was built and throughout the 20th century a debate was waged over the utility of maintaining the prison, whose very design was now obsolete. In 1971, the 1175 inmates were transferred to other institutions and the prison was closed. As would be expected, vandals broke in and destroyed things, a jungle of plants and bushes overgrew the entire property, even inside the buildings. In 1974 Mayor Frank Rizzo suggested demolishing Eastern State to construct a criminal justice center. Nothing happened for nearly 10 years, and in 1988 Eastern State Task Force, a group of architects, preservationists and historians, is formed. Mayor Wilson Goode urges the Redevelopment Authority to reject all proposals for commercial use of the property.

By 1994 the buildings were stabilized and 10,000 people took a tour of the historic site. The following year the mental ward scenes of 12 Monkeys were filmed here. Other movies were filmed here including Return to Paradise. Steve Buscemi scouted the site for a movie he was working on and he ultimately rejected the site because of rules against making changes to the site. He took an interest in the preservation efforts, and eventually narrated the audio tour which premieres in 2003. By now over 1 million dollars has been spent renovating the rotunda and important cells such as the occupied by Al Capone.

The prison is located at Fairmount Ave & 22nd Ave in Philadelphia and is open from April 1 until just after Thanksgiving. Private tours can be scheduled at any time, even during the winter. For information call 215 236-5111 x12. One of the more fascinating things I read was that the prison was a popular tourist attraction, as popular as Niagara Falls or the Capitol Building. Between 1862 and 1872 over 100,000 people visited the prison.

For more information visit the official website

Read about the tour of Eastern State Prison here

Read my take on Terror Behind the Walls here (a Halloween attraction held in the confines of ESP)