Wawa Welcome America Presents: The Eastern State Penitentiary

The 2020 Wawa Welcome America Festival hosted a week of virtual events from June 28 through July 4 to unite Philadelphians in celebrating American independence while adhering to the city’s COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.

The Festival notably celebrated Philadelphia’s heritage on Twitter by hosting a “Museums of the Day” campaign, where a total of 19 local museums offered behind-the-scenes looks at their exhibits. Many local museums were forced to suspend their in-person operations during the red and yellow phases of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 reopening plan, so the Museums of the Day campaign provided Philadelphians with the chance to finally revisit their favorite galleries and artifacts.

On June 30, the Festival highlighted Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) as one of the Museums of the Day. Located at 2027 Fairmount Ave., ESP is a former American prison that opened in 1829 and held over 400 prisoners before it closed for good in 1971. ESP was recognized as a National Historic Landmark on June 23, 1965 in honor of its grand architecture and strict disciplinary tactics.

As part of its virtual exhibition for the Festival, ESP offered Philadelphians an online tour of its most popular sites and cells, including Al Capone’s cell, “Death Row” and “Cellblock 7.”

A notorious gangster during the Prohibition era, Capone served seven months at ESP after he was arrested outside of a Philadelphia movie theater for carrying a concealed, unlicensed firearm. However, the prison guards were famously kind to Capone and allowed him to furnish his cell with various luxuries, including rugs, oil paintings and a radio, The Philadelphia Daily Ledger reported in 1929. Today, ESP has recreated Capone’s former cell so that Philadelphians can see the prison through his eyes.

Next, the virtual tour showcased Cellblock 15, which opened in 1959 and replaced Cellblock 13 as ESP’s maximum-security area. Complete with 17 cells on each floor, Cellblock 15 earned the nickname “Death Row” because it held prisoners sentenced to death until 1961. However, no executions ever took place at ESP. To minimize contact between ESP guards and prisoners, the prison installed bars to split Cellblock 15’s central corridors into two separate hallways, but they were sold as scrap metal when the prison closed in 1971.

The virtual tour concluded with an overview of the history of Cellblock 7, which is commonly recognized as one of ESP’s most iconic features. Designed in 1833 by architect John Haviland, Cellblock 7 famously features a 30-foot barrel vault ceiling. The completion of Cellblock 7’s construction in 1836 marked the completion of the entire prison.

For more information on ESP, visit their website here.

Article written by Daniel Ortiz on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.