Newly Opened Eastern State Hospital Cellblock Provides Window to Early Medical Care
“It was just lost to time,” Sean Kelley said of Eastern State Penitentiary’s long-shuttered Cellblock 3.
The wing, which functioned previously as the hospital quarters in the historic Fairmount prison, has been closed since the prison ceased operations in 1971. Though, Eastern State re-opened as a museum more than 20 years ago, Cellblock 3 remained a mystery to most visitors, shut away behind a gate bearing a notorious red cross.
That will change this weekend. After an 18-month renovation process, Cellblock 3, also known as the Hospital Block, will open for daily tours.
Kelley, the senior vice president and director of public programming and public relations at Eastern State, said staff had long heard visitors clamoring for access to the medical wing.
“Visitors have wanted this back open since we opened in 1994,” he said, noting that the few hardhat tours of the wing that were held over the years immediately filled up.
But the disrepair the block made public access not feasible.
“There were just piles and piles of rubble,” Kelley said of the state of the cellblock once work began in 2015. “The plaster was collapsing and it was really dangerous.”
The $191,000 stabilization project was supported in part by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, as well as through Eastern State’s Terror Behind the Walls program and private donations.
Kelley said workers preserved the area as much as possible. And, despite the dilapidation, some of the block was still intact.
“We found all sorts of artifacts: pill bottles that were remarkably untouched, bed pans, rolling stands that hold IVs, paperwork. When possible, we left things the way they were and wouldn’t move things if we didn’t have to.”
The block provides insight into the state of medical care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hospital operations were held in several different areas of the prison throughout its tenure; Cellblock 3 started as a quarantine area for sick inmates, with all hospital services eventually being consolidated there at the end of the 1800s.
As the world’s foremost penitentiary with an approach centered on reform, Eastern State took in infirm inmates from around the region who were transferred to the facility for its renowned medical and psychiatric care.
“It was very unusual,” Kelley said about the level of care provided in Cellblock 3. “It was the main medical facility for all the prisons in Pennsylvania. It was in the middle of Philadelphia, which had so many teaching hospitals, so doctors from various universities would come here to treat patients. From a heart surgeon to an expert in cancer treatment, they could be easily found in Philadelphia.”
Cellblock 3 featured an X-ray room, dialysis center and equipment for cancer treatment. Testaments to the scourge of tuberculosis in the early half of the 20th century are still visible in the wing.
“They had a room for hydrotherapy, which involves these big tubs,” Kelley explained. “Since tuberculosis is in your lungs, they installed big, open cells with giant back doors to let in a lot of fresh air. So all of the architecture to these methods is still visible.”
The juxtaposition of equipment to care for the sick alongside measures to keep inmates confined is what makes a visit to Hospital Block so eye-opening, Kelley noted.
“It was an institution within an institution,” he said. “They had to still monitor security even when people were so sick — you can see the beds that tilt upward but then right next to them there are steel bars along the windows and doors. The combination is fascinating. Disturbing, but fascinating.”
Visitors can see the dichotomy for themselves starting May 5th. Fifteen-minute guided tours of the Hospital Block will be held twice an hour during normal business hours; the tours are included with the price of admission.
A free reception to mark the 2017 season will be held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. May 5, featuring tours of the Hospital Block and access to three new artist installations.
For more information, visit www.easternstate.org.