Fireplaces were essential in Early American homes, providing heat, light, and a hearth for cooking, as well as a family gathering place.  In Colonial America, they were usually wide, deep “walk-ins” without much of a mantel.  Those in the homes of Dutch settlers were often wider than tall, while the English settlers built them to be smaller and less spacious.

By the 1700’s, homes commonly featured chimneys, though not everyone was convinced of their virtues.  Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The upright heat flies directly up the Chimny.  Thus Five Sixth at least of the Heat (and consequently of the Fewel) is wasted, and contributes nothing towards warming the Room.”

Benjamin Franklin thought that chimney back drafts were causing illnesses.  He said, “Woman particularly from this Cause (as they sit much in the House) get Colds in the Head.” Ben went on to develop alternative fireplace designs, including the Franklin stove.  Despite hi best efforts, however, the fireplace and its chimney were firmly entrenched in American architecture.

In the mid-Atlantic and northern states, central chimneys served fires in two or more rooms on several floors, to maximize the amount of heat a house retained, while homes in the south used fireplaces at the far ends of the houses to reduce heat buildup.

Until the 1800’s, fireplaces were purely practical affairs.  Heading into the mid-1800’s, however, they became the focal points if the main living areas, with carved mantels and other decorative elements.

In English homes, plain or bead-edged paneling usually surrounded fireplaces from the floor to the ceiling.  Dutch homes hung curtains above the fireplace.  Some homes using blue and white Delftware tiles or the book-matched paneling on either side of the fireplace.  The Federal and Greek Revival-style mantels featured swag, star, or shell accents.  The mantles and hearths of many historic Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia were made from King of Prussia marble, quarried in nearby King of Prussia.

In the early 1800’s, size and shape changed the emergence of the “Rumford Fireplace.” Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, designed a smaller, shallower affair that was taller than is was wide, with sharply angled sides sloping into a narrow chimney.  It threw more heat back into the room, exhausted smoke more efficiently and eliminated back drafts.  This is the construction design used in most modern masonry fireplaces today.

After the Industrial Revolution, more and more fireplaces featured cast iron arched surrounds with decorative embellishments.

The decorative elements of fireplaces became increasingly ornate with the addition of overmantels, as well as columns and glazed tiles.  In the early 1900’s, design aesthetics reverted to a more rustic and natural style when the “back-to-nature” effort fueled the Arts and Crafts movement.  Today, although practically anything goes, fireplaces remain the sentimental hubs of American homes.



In keeping with our promise to share with you various primary resources from the Civil War in honor of the sesquicentennial this year, here are a few photos from the Library of Congress’ extensive Civil War collection.  We’ve included some information about each of the subjects in the photos – some of which may be well known (like black soldiers) and others which may not (like the rise of embalming during the war). 

The Library of Congress has over sixteen thousand pictures from the Civil War – you can browse and search them on their website if you would like to spend more time taking a look at these wonderfully preserved artifacts from the war.


[Doctors examining a Federal prisoner returned from prison]

Doctors examining a Federal prisoner returned from prison


The Andersonville Civil War Prison

The Andersonville Civil War Prison was the most infamous of all the Civil War prisons. Located in the village of Andersonville, Sumpter County, Georgia, became notorious for its overcrowding, starvation, disease, and cruelty.  It was in operation from February 1864 to April 1865.

Andersonville Prison was established as a “stockade for Union enlisted men”.  The prison consisted of 27 acres and was enclosed with walls made of pine logs, which stood 15-20 feet high.  The “stockade” held a hospital but no barracks were ever constructed for the prisoners.  Originally intended to hold 10,000 men, Andersonville at one time held over 33,000 men.  According to records, a total of 49,485 prisoners went through the gates of Andersonville Prison.

Prisoners suffered from hunger, disease, medical shortages, and exposure.  The death rate at Andersonville was the highest of all Civil War prisons.  A staggering 13,700 men died within thirteen months!

The superintendent of the prison was Captain Henry Wirz.  It is said he was heartless and high-handed.  John L. Ransom, a Michigan sergeant and Andersonville prisoner, wrote in his diary on May 10, 1864:  “Captain Wirz very domineering and abusive, is afraid to come into camp any more.  A thousand men here would willingly die if they could kill him first.  The worst man I ever saw.”  Captain Wirz was tried and hanged by a military court after the war.

Andersonville Prison was investigated by the Confederate War Department, this mere fact would attest to the horrors suffered by prisoners at Andersonville. The prisoner’s burial ground is now a National Cemetery and contains 13,737 graves, of which 1,040 are marked unknown.

The area is now designated as a National Park and can be visited.  Visitors will experience a great sense of sorrow upon seeing this vast number of graves.

From, for a complete list of Civil War prisons with information on each of them visit this page on their website.  For their information on Andersonville, including a prisoner name search, POW database, and lists of prisoners who died at Andersonville, please visit this page on their website.


Gibson's horse battery (C. 3d U.S. Art'y.) near Fair Oaks, Va. June 1862

Gibson’s horse battery (C. 3d U.S. Art’y.) near Fair Oaks, Va. June 1862

U.S. Horse Artillery Brigade

Officers of the Horse Artillery Brigade at Fair Oaks, 1862. Photo by James F. Gibson. Library of Congress.

The Horse Artillery Brigade of the Army of the Potomac was a brigade of various batteries of horse artillery during the American Civil War. Made up almost entirely of individual, company-strength batteries from the Regular Army’s five artillery regiments, the Horse Artillery operated under the command umbrella of the Cavalry Corps. The Horse Artillery differed from other light artillery (also known as “mounted” artillery) in that each member of the unit traveled on his own horse, rather than the traditional light artillery practice of some riding horses, while others rode on the limbers and caissons, with still others traveling on foot. With each man on his own horse, the unit could travel faster and more efficiently. It was the brainchild of former artillery captain and Brig. Gen. William Farquhar Barry, Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac, in 1861. With such a large percentage of the U.S. Horse Artillery being artillery batteries from the regular U.S. Army, it developed a superb reputation for military efficiency, accuracy of fire, and command presence in the field and in battle.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″]  Term: “Battery” (Civil War) Refers to one or more pieces of artillery.  Usually, a Field Battery of Artillery was attached to each Infantry Brigade, and this Battery would include 1 captain, 3 lieutenants, 150 men with 6 guns and 88 horses.  The guns were muzzle loaders, 3 inch rifles, or 6 or 12 pdr. smooth bore. Late in the war, batteries were reduced to 4 guns.  Also, a Battery of Horse Artillery often accompanied each cavalry brigade, and this battery included 1 captain, 3 lieutenants, 150 men, 6 guns and 140 horses (cannoneers rode horses).

From the Wisconsin Historical Society website.[/sws_grey_box]


[Two brothers in arms]


History of Black Troops in the Civil War

The U.S. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862. It freed slaves of owners in rebellion against the United States, and amilitia act empowered the President to use freed slaves in any capacity in the army. President Abraham Lincoln was concerned with public opinion in the four border states that remained in the Union, as they had numerous slaveholders, as well as with northern Democrats who supported the war but were less supportive of abolition than many northern Republicans. Lincoln opposed early efforts to recruit black soldiers, although he accepted the Army’s using them as paid workers.

Union Army setbacks in battles over the summer of 1862 led Lincoln to emancipate all slaves in states at war with the Union. In September 1862 Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following the Proclamation of January 1863.

The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing a “Bureau of Colored Troops” to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.  Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

[sws_pullquote_right] “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass [/sws_pullquote_right]

Approximately 175 regiments composed of more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen served during the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war’s end, the men of the USCT composed nearly one tenth of all Union troops. The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, black and white.

USCT regiments were led by white officers, and rank advancement was limited for black soldiers. The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia opened a Free Military Academy for Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops at the end of 1863.  For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts, but they (and their supporters) lobbied and gained equal pay.  Notable members of USCT regiments included Martin Robinson Delany, and the sons of Frederick Douglass.

The courage displayed by colored troops during the Civil War played an important role in African-Americans gaining new rights.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A battery of "Quaker Guns"

A battery of “Quaker Guns”


Quaker Guns

A Quaker Gun is a deception tactic that was commonly used in warfare during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although resembling an actual cannon, the Quaker Gun was simply a wooden log, usually painted black, used to deceive an enemy. Misleading the enemy as to the strength of an emplacement was an effective delaying tactic. The name derives from the Religious Society of Friends or “Quakers”, who have traditionally held a religious opposition to war and violence in the Peace Testimony.

Usage during the American Civil War

Quaker guns made of pine logs were mounted in a ruse to fool the Union into believing that the Confederates were much better armed at theSiege of Port Hudson, Louisiana in 1863. Black rings were painted on the end of the logs to make the muzzles look convincing. It worked. AfterAdmiral Farragut’s two vessels passed by Port Hudson, the Union chose to never attack from the river again

Quaker guns were used by both the Northern and Southern sides in the American Civil War. The Confederate States Army frequently used them to compensate for a shortage of artillery. They were painted black at the muzzle, and positioned behind fortifications to delay Union assaults on those positions. On occasion, real gun carriages were used to complete the deception.

Perhaps the most famous use of Quaker Guns was by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston who placed Quaker Guns in his field works around Centreville, Virginia in March 1862, to indicate that the works were still occupied while, in fact, the Confederates were withdrawing to theRappahannock River.

Another major example occurred during the Siege of Corinth: “During the night of May 29, the Confederate army moved out. They used the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to carry the sick and wounded, the heavy artillery, and tons of supplies. When a train arrived, the troops cheered as though reinforcements were arriving. They set up dummy Quaker Guns along the defensive earthworks. Camp fires were kept burning, and buglers and drummers played. The rest of the men slipped away undetected…”

Quaker Guns were also used to bolster numerous Confederate fortifications during the Siege of Petersburg and greatly assisted in lengthening the amount of time the Confederates were able to hold their positions against the overwhelmingly superior and overbearing Union troops.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


[Unknown location. Embalming surgeon at work on soldier's body]

Embalming surgeon at work on soldier’s body


 Embalming During the Civil War

Wars are often responsible for medical and scientific advances, and the Civil War drove the need for a new science: an improved way to handle the dead. So many men died and so many were far from home, there was a growing need for a way to preserve a body for a decent burial once the body arrived home. Families wanted to see their fallen sons once more, and railroads added to the urgency by refusing to carry decaying bodies (identifiable by smell).

In the mid-19th century, the French developed a method of arterial embalming, and an American, a Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900), who trained and worked as a coroner’s physician in New York in the 1850s, had begun experimenting with embalming methods used by the French.

The first military fatality of the war, Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (1837-1861), had worked for Lincoln in Springfield and later helped with the presidential campaign.  It was said that Dr. Holmes visited Lincoln and offered to embalm the body of Lincoln’s friend at no charge.

As a result of this successful effort to preserve the body, Dr. Holmes was given a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers in order that they might be sent home for burial. Holmes is said to have embalmed as many as 4,000 bodies himself, but he also created a fluid that could be used for embalming and sold it to other physicians for $3 per gallon. (At that time, the chemicals were a mixture of arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine and alcohol. Formaldehyde, which soon became the primary ingredient, was not discovered until after the war.)

Though the practice of embalming established itself during the Civil War, the actual numbers of people who were embalmed were actually relatively small. Because of the difficulty in identifying bodies and communicating with families about sending a body home, only about 40,000 of the approximately 650,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War were embalmed.

With the end of the Civil War, the practice of embalming died out for a time since people were likely to die near home and could be buried more quickly. Embalming surgeons became a thing of the past, and when interest in embalming returned again in the 1890s, undertakers began to perform these duties. Companies that wanted to sell embalming fluid sent salesmen around the country to demonstrate the process and provide certificates of training, and the practice grew. (State licensing finally entered the picture in the 1930s.)


[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″]

Embalming was performed by those with a medical background and usually involved the use of toxic chemicals. Embalming was performed by squeezing a rubber ball that would pump the embalming fluid into the deceased’s artery in the area of the armpit. This process took a couple of hours. There rarely was a need to drain blood because that occurred on the battlefield. When the embalming was complete, the body was placed in a wooden box usually lined with zinc. On the lid appeared the name of the deceased along with his parents’ names. Inside were his personal belongings. Holmes’ fee for embalming was $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man. As the war continued and embalmers were in high demand, those figures rose to $80 and $30, respectively.

From The Washington Times.

Read more about the history of embalming and its rise during the Civil War on their website. [/sws_grey_box]






Preservation Pennsylvania’s latest newsletter edition noted the following historic preservation grant opportunities for 2013:

Historic Preservation Grant Opportunities

America’s Historical and Cultural Organizations. The NEH is offering both planning and implementation grant opportunities to museums, libraries, historic places and other organizations that provide public programming in the humanities. Closing date: January 9, 2013.

FY2013 Our Town. The NEA is accepting proposals for creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities and place the arts at their core. Closing date: January 14, 2013.

Museums for America. This IMLS grant program seeks to strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve the public more effectively. Closing date: January 15, 2013.

Museum Grants for African American History and Culture. This IMLS grant enhances institutional capacity and sustainability through professional training, technical assistance, outside expertise, and other tools. Closing date: January 15, 2013.

National Leadership Grants for Museums. The IMLS is offering funding for initiatives with the potential to advance best practices so museums can improve services for the American public. Closing date: January 15, 2013

National Digital Newspaper Program. The NEH is seeking to digitize and make freely accessible historically significant newspapers published in the US between 1836 and 1992. Closing date: January 17, 2013.

Digital Humanities Implementation Grants. The NEH is seeking to fund innovative digital humanities projects. Closing date: January 23, 2013.

The other week, Lois, Danielle, Katie, and Karri’s family took a field trip to see the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  A nearly 200-year-old prison that looks like an abandoned castle and held scores of the dangerous, morally bankrupt, and sometimes the completely innocent for about 150 years… does it get any spookier than that?

Take a few minutes to explore with us.  We’ll begin with some basic history of the prison and then you can “walk” around the grounds with us as we comment on what we saw and learned.  The spoooooooooooky stuff we saved until last, because we didn’t want to scare you away from all of the rest of the fantastic stuff in this post.  But if you like to be scared first, feel free to scroll on down to the end.

After you’re done with our article, there is an excellent detailed description of the daily life and operations (including some surprisingly horrendous punishments for a “more humane” approach to imprisonment) at Eastern State read “Solitary Confinement: History & Hauntings of Eastern State Penitentiary”.

Note: Click on any of the smaller pictures to see them in full size.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary

Built in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA was the world’s first, true penitentiary.  After gaining their independence and launching a new nation, America’s founders were eager to lead the way in social development too.  At the time, prisons were nothing more than places to hold large groups of criminals, and not necessarily even humane or safe places.  Overcrowding and abuse of prisoners was common, as were unsanitary conditions and horrific physical punishments.

Inspired by Enlightenment thinking, a group of Philadelphians founded The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in Benjamin Franklin’s home.  The goal of the Society was to establish a ground-breaking prison system that would encourage true penitence and spiritual change in a criminal’s heart.

Designed by John Haviland, the Penitentiary turned the concept of incarceration at the time on its head and strove to rehabilitate instead of punish.  Based on the Separate System principle of isolation, the Penitentiary used solitary confinement to encourage self-reflection.  Not only were daily schedules and activities structured to encourage that self-reflection, the Penitentiary’s architecture was too.

Katie: It was interesting that the Pennsylvania System was used in most of Europe but the New York System was popular in the United States.

Note: The New York (or “Auburn”) System also strove to rehabilitate prisoners.  It did so by having prisoners work in silent groups during the day. At night they would retire to solitary, and once again silent, confinement.  This was to teach them discipline and respect for work, property, and other people.  An example of a prison founded on the Auburn System principles is Sing Sing in New York.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s overall design was seven main cell blocks arranged around a center hub, like spokes on a wheel.  This enabled the guards to watch each cell block from the center hub.  For the exterior of the Penitentiary, Haviland deliberately chose the intimidating gothic style to both keep outsiders at a distance and imply the kind of fortitude we associate with massive, stone castles.

Lois: The layout may look like wheel spokes from an arial view, but walking around inside the Penitentiary felt much more like a maze!  If an inmate, used to walking around with a hood over their head, managed to get into the main part of the building, they would never have been able to find their way out.

Aerial View of Eastern State Penitentiary Layout

[pe2-gallery] Watchtower at Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Front Wall at Eastern State Penitentiary

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary   Front Entrance of Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Note: The gargoyles are not original.  They are circa 9/20/2012 when they were erected for the Penitentiary’s annual “Terror Behind the Walls”.

Danielle: Eastern State Penitentiary definitely seemed like a fortress from the outside.  As imposing as it seems today, it must have been more so sitting on top of a hill in the midst of fields and forest a few miles outside of the hustle and bustle of the “civilized” city in the 1800’s.

The Cells at Eastern State Penitentiary

Individual cells were small, sparse, and closed off by a heavy wooden door that had a hole just large enough to pass food through.  At the back of each cell was an entrance to an outdoor exercise yard that was also small, sparse, and closed off from the rest of the prison and prisoners (though there was no roof).  Inmates spent all of their time in their cells, and were allowed a single hour out of every day in their exercise yards.  For those rare times a prisoner needed to be anywhere other than his cell or exercise yards, they were transported with hoods over their heads to eliminate contact with others and keep security tight.  After all, inmates couldn’t escape if they didn’t know the layout of the prison they were held in.

[pe2-gallery] Later Cell Skylights at Eastern State Penitentiary  Original Cell Skylights at Eastern State Penitentiary  The Exercise Yard at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Note: The original cells had the much-smaller circle skylights seen in the second picture instead of the larger rectangle seen in the first picture.  To give you an idea of the size of the exercise yard – those cute kids of mine are standing at the door to the cell and I am back against the outside wall.  That was all the space they had to “exercise” in.

Katie: The solitude the prisoners felt must have been unbearable.  I can’t imagine being walked into a prison with a hood on my head and not really knowing the layout of the building.

Karri: I see the roots in Enlightenment philosophy and the mimicry of monastic life, and I see where it would be easy to think of a place like Eastern State Penitentiary as being a much better approach than the traditional prisons of the time.  But were they really?  Or were they just a horror of a totally different sort?  It seems akin to sensory deprivation and other kinds of psychological torture – to subject another person to such complete isolation against their will.  And I wonder how well this approach really worked?  How many inmates truly changed and were successfully rehabilitated?  How many simply went mad?  (Is it perhaps telling that no one really talks about whether or not this revolutionary approach worked?)  Oh, and can you imagine the eye strain the prisoners must have experienced working in such low light?  My eyeballs are hurting just thinking about it.

Lois: This humane system’s intent was to repair souls that had gone astray.  But we will never know if more harm than good was accomplished.

A special note about this very topic… Some deeper research after our field trip reveals that prisoners often did go mad while imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary.  During the 1800’s, the many cases of insanity that were documented by prison doctors at Eastern State were listed as being caused by one of two things: genes and excessive masturbation.  Never once was the total isolation of the prison listed as a cause of any of the breakdowns.

During the 23 hours out of a day that inmates spent in their cells, they were expected to work diligently and studiously at a vocation.  The founders of the Pennsylvania System believed that lack of training in a trade or education in general was a contributing factor in someone developing a criminal career.  They also believed that providing criminals with education and training in a vocation or trade was a critical aspect to rehabilitating them.

[pe2-gallery] Recreated Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary       Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Tucker: Someone really should have invented TV back then so the poor guys could sit back and watch the game after they were done working.

Katie: The cells even had feed doors and doors to their own exercise yards to minimize contact between other prisoners and guards.

The Door System at Eastern State Penitentiary

[pe2-gallery] Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Cell Door Track at Eastern State Penitentiary  Original Door Hinges from Eastern State Penitentiary  Gratuitous Cute Kid Shot at Eastern State Penitentiary  Cell Numbers at Eastern State Penitentiary  The Doors of Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

The door system for each cell was intriguing.  There was a solid iron interior door (the grated one you see in the pictures) that swung out on hinges, and a heavy solid wood exterior door that slid on a track.  Both of the doors were secured with a locking system, and both locking systems had special little “tricks” to them that weren’t easily figured out in the event that an unauthorized person did try to let someone out.  The pictures below show the kids trying their hand at getting into a cell – not an easy task.  Note: not all of the doors that are currently at the Penitentiary are original.  The wooden doors that are original have a cross in their ironwork, as pictured above.

Karri: I think there is something so much more final, and foreboding, about a sliding door like the wooden doors on the outside of the cells.  I think it’s those little things that might have added up to a terrible madness.  Think about it, put yourself inside that cell.  What seems more restricting to you – a door that slides back or one that swings open?

[pe2-gallery] Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  [/pe2-gallery]

Bean: I could have TOTALLY picked that lock if I was a prisoner!
(Let’s not burst his little 5yr-old bubble and tell him if he was a prisoner he would have been on the other side of the doors.)

Gracie: I would have thought, “Oh crap I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my sentence because I’mnever breaking out of here.”  Then I probably would have asked, “Can I have Al Capone’s cell?”.

The front gate of Eastern State Penitentiary had a similar set-up.  There were three sets of doors at the entrance to the Penitentiary, and only one set was opened at a time.  This ensured that people and deliveries could be moved in and out of the Penitentiary without any chance of someone slipping in or out.  Again, there were “tricks” to the locking system so that someone unfamiliar with how it worked couldn’t quickly unlock the door.

[pe2-gallery] DSC05046.JPG Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Mason: Opening up the front gate was really neat.  I can’t believe it weighed 3,400lbs and I could move it.  See, Mama, you were wrong – I don’t actually need spinach to grow big and strong!

With all that time in their cells, inmates often “decorated”.  Perhaps not quite as lavishly as Al Capone’s cell, or other inmates of higher status, but many painted murals in their rooms or faux-finished their walls.

[pe2-gallery] Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Karri: The story behind that eye above the door was intriguing.  Positioned like that above the door, it’s unlikely that guards or prison officials ever saw it, or at least didn’t see it right away – which makes me wonder if the positioning was chosen deliberately to remain as “hidden” as possible.  The kids and I also couldn’t decide if the tear of sorrow was for the prisoner, or the guards.  Because we’re really not sure who’s fate was more sorrowful.

Eastern State Penitentiary is self-described as a “stabilized ruins” – an apt description of the property.  Some improvements have been made. There is a modernized admissions office and gift store, and a few places in the Penitentiary that have been restored to original condition to show visitors what it would have been like.  But largely, the Penitentiary remains as it has been since it was abandoned in the 1970’s.

Lois: “Stabilized ruins” isn’t just an appropriate title, it seems an appropriate manifestation as well.

Danielle: Not only are there guides throughout the Penitentiary to answer questions and host demonstrations and tours, the Penitentiary also offers an “audio tour”.  When we arrived, we each received headsets to wear as we walked around.  While at a specific spot (the exhibit on women in the prison, for example), you could play a recording of information about that topic.  These recordings included a lot of first-hand accounts of life in the prison – something I found incredibly valuable.

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State University  Another Gratuitous Cute Kid Shot at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Gratuitous Cute Husband Shot at Eastern State University  A View from the Center Hub at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Gratuitous Cute Family Shot at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  The Greenhouse at Eastern State University  The Greenhouse at Eastern State University  The Bocci Court at Eastern State University  The Visiting Room at Eastern State University[/pe2-gallery]

Bean: Those prisoners were pretty lucky – they got to play Bocci!

Pep the Dog

Although Eastern State Penitentiary housed some pretty big names (Al Capone spent almost a year there), perhaps its most infamous “inmate” was Pep the Dog.  Legend has it that Pep killed the Governor’s wife’s cat and was sentenced to life in the penitentiary.  Pep even had a mug shot taken, and was wearing an inmate number in that mug shot.  The Governor’s official story is that he donated the dog as a “prison mascot” of sorts to improve morale among the inmates.  But skeptics of that theory point out that Pep’s inmate number was never assigned to a human inmate and is completely missing from prison records….almost as if it had been assigned to Pep.

Danielle: Pep might have been a bad dog, but he must have been a very popular prisoner – he had the most items devoted to him in the gift shop!  Of course, the gift shop also had shank magnets available, so……  (And really? Shank magnets? Who buys those for their fridge?)

Katie: I thought the story behind Pep the dog was cute, but I think he was really just donated to the prison.

The Kids (resoundingly, as in all four of them): Somebody should have helped him escape, it’s not fair to lock a dog up behind bars and never let him out again.

The Inevitable Escape Attempts at Eastern State Penitentiary

Speaking of escape attempts, Eastern State Penitentiary did have its share of them.  Over 100, in fact, though only two go down in history.  The first because it was the only time a prisoner escaped and wasn’t recaptured when six men used a 30-foot ladder to climb over the Penitentiary walls in 1923.  All were recaptured, except Leo Callahan.  Callahan vanished and no one knows where he went or what happened to him after that.  The second, perhaps most infamous simply for its audacity, is the tunnel escape in 1945.  In that escape, 12 men crawled through a tunnel to escape under the Penitentiary wall.  The tunnel went down 15 feet from an inmate’s cell, across 97 feet under the courtyard, and up 15 feet outside of the Penitentiary’s 30-foot walls (which also ran 10-foot deep below-ground).   The first prisoners were recaptured within minutes of escaping, and all were recaptured within weeks.  One prisoner even turned himself back in after just a few days on the outside – he was tired, hungry, and cold and needed somewhere warm to sleep and eat.

Karri: Leo Callahan fascinates me simply because he’s the sole successful escapee from the Penitentiary.  Where did he go?  How did he just disappear?  What did he do that the five other men who escaped with him and were re-caught didn’t do?  Did he plan better?  Did he run further?  Was it just luck?  The tunnel escape was brilliant, but how did they do it?  It took them years to dig that tunnel, where did they put the dirt?  How did they hide what they were doing?  How did they keep it secret from other inmates? And just how on earth did they know that the exterior walls of the Penitentiary went down 10-foot underground?  That’s got to be the most brilliant of all, to have taken into consideration that those walls just might go deeper than normal.  Me?  I would have dug down a couple feet and then dug over to the wall and smacked straight into the stone.

[pe2-gallery] 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University[/pe2-gallery]

Surprising Details

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Barber Shop Chair at Eastern State University Barber Shop Chair at Eastern State University Al Capone's Cell at Eastern State University The Greenhouse at Eastern State University The Greenhouse at Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University [/pe2-gallery]

Danielle: Despite the somber Gothic architecture and serious nature of what the purpose of the Penitentiary was, it was equipped with beautifully ornate details and very modern amenities.  Every cell block had its own barber shop that would (in later years) become the “social spots” where inmates gathered.  There was a “hospital” where inmates received medical care and a greenhouse where they grew fresh foods.  The Penitentiary even had running water and a central heating system before the White House did. 

As part of the modern preservation of Eastern State Penitentiary, there are a number of different “artist installations” around the Penitentiary that are all commentary on the Penitentiary – some good commentary, some purely historical commentary, some critical commentary.

[pe2-gallery] Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University [/pe2-gallery]

Karri: In 2012, we look back at history and the things our culture has done in the past and often think, “How could they have done that to another human?”  It is certainly easy to wander the Eastern State ruins and wonder that very thing, and then breathe a sigh of relief that we were born in a much more progressive time.  Until you come across the art installation that depicts a Guantanamo Bay cell sitting inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell.  For as little as the Eastern State cells looked (and they were indeed tiny), the modern-day Guantanamo Bay cell was significantly smaller.  And looked like a dog cage.  A dog cage.  Let me correct that….looked like a cage most of us wouldn’t even house our dogs in. Somehow, the stone cell of Eastern State with its chipping whitewash, total silence, small cot, toilet, and a sink seemed so much more homier and comfortable than a dog cage with no light, no ventilation, and two buckets instead of plumbing.  How could we still be doing that to another human being?

Speaking of doing things to human beings… punishment was horrific at Eastern State Penitentiary – a penitentiary founded as a humane alternative to prisons at that time. In the beginning of the Penitentiary’s long existence, punishment didn’t happen – administrators and the Penitentiary’s founders and designers believed the solitary confinement in small cells was punishment enough.  But as prisoners continued breaking the rules, punishment began to be used and progressively worsened stepping far outside the Quaker roots of the prison.

“The Mad Chair” was a punishment where an offending inmate would be strapped to a chair so snugly that they could not move at all and was left there (without food and water) for a period of time that depended on the severity of their offense ranging from hours to days.

“The Water Bath” punishment involved dunking or dousing an inmate in ice cold water, hoisting them up onto a wall with chains, and then leaving then leaving them there overnight (a “treatment” method used at that time in mental hospitals).  When used during the winter months (the time of year the guards most often used this form of punishment), a layer of ice would form over the inmate’s skin by morning.

“The Iron Gag” was the most popular form of punishment at Eastern State – and the most feared by prisoners.  The gag was an iron collar that went around a prisoner’s neck, with a metal piece that went in the prisoner’s mouth to suppress their tongue.  The prisoner’s hands were then crossed and pulled tight behind their necks and attached to the collar as well.  Any movement of their hands or arms would pull at their tongues and prisoner’s mouth was usually bloody and sore by the time their punishment was over.

“The Hole” was a set of incredibly small, completely windowless and utterly dark, rooms beneath the Penitentiary where inmates could be thrown for weeks at a time.  While in The Hole prisoners were given one cup of water and one slice of bread a day, and did not leave the dank cells for anything.  Not even bathroom breaks.  They were left to sit in their own filth, fighting off rats and other vermin until their punishment was done.

The Spooooooooooooooooooky Stuff at Eastern State Penitentiary

Rumors of ghosts at Eastern State Penitentiary have been around since the early 1900’s.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the first solid ghost story at Eastern State Penitentiary involved Al Capone.  Purportedly, Capone was haunted mercilessly by one of his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre victims and could be heard repeatedly screaming and begging in his cell for the ghost to go away and leave him alone.

But even before Capone getting his just desserts, prisoners and guards alike have reported supernatural goings-on at Eastern State Penitentiary – footsteps in empty halls, pacing in empty cells, wails coming from empty darkness, and dark shapes that resembled human forms drafting past.  Since the site has been opened to the public in the middle of the 1970’s as a National Historic Landmark, tourists and staff confirm even more supernatural encounters.

In Cell Block #12, independent witnesses have reported hearing laughter in certain cells and shadowy apparitions.  Similar shadowy apparitions have been sited in Cell Block #6 and “Death Row” Cell Block #15.  The most frequent “ghost” siting occurs in the older cell blocks, where visitors report a dark, human-like figure who just stands there emitting angry energy.

Mason: It doesn’t seem like it’s actually haunted – I checked pretty thoroughly.  Maybe even in a few spots I wasn’t technically supposed to.

Gracie: Eastern State Penitentiary was creepy, mysterious, intriguing, and ancient all at the same time.

[pe2-gallery] Spooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Tax Incentives for Preserving Historic Properties

The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program encourages private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings. It creates jobs and is one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs. It has leveraged over $62 billion in private investment to preserve 38,000 historic properties since 1976. The National Park Service and the Internal Revenue Service administer the program in partnership with State Historic Preservation Offices.

Group of people on a tour of Baltimore tax incentives projects.

20% Tax Credit

A 20% income tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of historic, income-producing buildings that are determined by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, to be “certified historic structures.” The State Historic Preservation Offices and the National Park Service review the rehabilitation work to ensure that it complies with the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The Internal Revenue Service defines qualified rehabilitation expenses on which the credit may be taken. Owner-occupied residential properties do not qualify for the federal rehabilitation tax credit. Learn more about this credit before you apply.

Each year, Technical Preservation Services approves approximately 1000 projects, leveraging nearly $4 billion annually in private investment in the rehabilitation of historic buildings across the country.

10% Tax Credit

The 10% tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of non-historic buildings placed in service before 1936. The building must be rehabilitated for non-residential use. In order to qualify for the tax credit, the rehabilitation must meet three criteria: at least 50% of the existing external walls must remain in place as external walls, at least 75% of the existing external walls must remain in place as either external or internal walls, and at least 75% of the internal structural framework must remain in place. There is no formal review process for rehabilitations of non-historic buildings. Learn more about this credit in Historic Preservation Tax Incentives.

Tax Benefits for Historic Preservation Easements

A historic preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement, typically in the form of a deed, that permanently protects an historic property. Through the easement, a property owner places restrictions on the development of or changes to the historic property, then transfers these restrictions to a preservation or conservation organization. A historic property owner who donates an easement may be eligible for tax benefits, such as a Federal income tax deduction. Easement rules are complex, so property owners interested in the potential tax benefits of an easement donation should consult with their accountant or tax attorney. Learn more about easements in Easements to Protect Historic Properties: A Useful Historic Preservation Tool with Potential Tax Benefits.

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″]

Tell us your thoughts…

Have you been involved in a project that used the federal rehabilitation tax credit?

What questions do you have about the federal income tax credit for historic properties?

What do you want to know more about this tax incentive? [/sws_grey_box]

Here’s an interesting debate, one that we’ve discussed before when researching Independence Hall preservation.  This time, the debate is hitting a little closer to home.

Gettysburg, specifically.  The Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, more specifically.

Public domain photo from Wikipedia’s article on the Cyclorama Building.


For those who aren’t familiar, the Gettysburg Cyclorama is a 360-degree painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that depicts hallmark moments and battles during the Civil War.  The first version of the painting was completed in 1883, but after being displayed in Chicago it was lost until 1965.  This version was purchased by a group of private investors from North Carolina.

The second version of Philippoteaux’s famous work has had a much safer journey through time.  It spent most of its life safely on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park, where the Cyclorama Building was built in 1962 specifically to house the painting by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of their Mission 66 Program aiming to encourage more visitors to National Park sites.

Until 2005, that is, when the painting was removed from the Cyclorama Building for restoration and repairs.  It was never returned.  NPS instead installed the painting at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center and the Cyclorama Building has sat empty and abandoned ever since – despite the fact that it was identified in 1998 as a building with “exceptional historic and architectural significance” by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places (the official designated by the National Park Service who is responsible for listing historic properties on the register and determining their eligibility).

Despite those words by the Keeper, the building was not added to the Historic Register in 1998, a decision that has been highly contentious and waged a preservation war between Civil War purists and modern-architecture preservationists ever since.  (To read more about that war, you can spend some time reading the Cyclorama Page at the Mission 66 website, researched and composed by Christine Madrid French as part of her master’s thesis for the University of Virginia, School of Architecture, Department of Architectural History.)

Civil War purists say the building should come down in the interests of preserving an accurate picture of the Civil War at Gettysburg, while modern-architecture preservationists say its a building worthy of preservation for its own architectural and historic significance.

Their war reached a peak in 1999 when NPS decided to tear down the building, prompting the modern-architecture preservationists to take the issue to court yet again.  That particular battle culminated with a victory in 2010 for those trying to preserve the Cyclorama Building when a U.S. District court judge ruled that the NPS “had failed to comply with federal law requiring it to analyze the effect of the Cyclorama Center demolition and come up with alternatives to destroying it”.

Having now lasted three times longer than the Civil War itself, the war may finally be ending.  A court-ordered study instigated by the 2010 ruling found that demolition of the building is the best course of action for the NPS, as was reported in an Associated Press article on the Lancaster-based news station WGAL’s website just today.  You can read the short article here.

This is another preservation war that yet again begs the debate: do we preserve our architecture and its surrounding landscape as it was originally or do we include later preservation efforts and diversity in development around those buildings as evidence of the evolution of our built history?

Does older architectural history automatically trump modern architectural history? Should it? Even when both have been determined to be architecturally significant to our built history?  Should preservation be built only on aesthetics?  If so, whose aesthetics?  Is there no place in architectural preservation for conflicting aesthetics?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, do you?

Comment below and let me know where you stand on this particular debate.


In the summer of 2011, the tower at Independence Hall was bared to the bones for the first time since it was added in 1828.  In a restoration project for the National Park Service (NPS), contractors bared the face level of the tower down to the structural framing.  The NPS has a detailed write-up of the project, along with pictures, videos, and step-by-step pictorial guides of the process.


Architecture of Democracy 

by Allan Greenberg

Wrapping up our discussion on the founding of our country, we thought we recommend this book on the founding architecture of our country.  You can read more information about author Allan Greenberg at his website, a detailed article on Allan Greenberg and this book that ran in a 2007 issue on Traditional Building, and the book can be purchased at multiple places online but we suggest ordering from our favorite locally owned and operated brick-and-mortar bookstore, Aaron’s Books.

Since I put last month’s e-newsletter to bed (obligatory you can sign up here) yesterday morning (hey, that e-newsletter is one wild party animal on the weekends), I’ve started researching this month’s snail-mail newsletter (another obligatory you can sign up for that one here).  We’re delving into the history at Independence National Park in Philadelphia since it’s fresh on our minds from our recently completed project at the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

Independence National Historic Park

The park captures quite well the beauty, freedom, wide open spaces, breathing room found in our country.

In my reading about the history of the park and its founding, I discovered that in the early 1900’s when the park was first proposed, the architects decided that the actual setting of Independence Hall wasn’t good enough and set about creating what they determined to be a “fitting setting” by clearing the half-block between Chestnut Street and Ludlow Street in front of the Hall.
So what’s so terribly notable about making it better when we preserve it?  Don’t we do that all the time?  It’s nothing new….
And that is the very point that struck me.  We do it all the time.  We set out to preserve a piece of our history, and along the way we make changes and judgment calls based on our aesthetic preferences.  We don’t always preserve the way something actually looked.  Sometimes what we are actually preserving is our own nostalgic idea of what it would have, should have, could have looked like.
In the case of Independence Hall, early proponents of its preservation recognized that the architecture that surrounded the traditional brick building stood in stark contrast to the iconic structure, what it represented, and what the public’s expectations were regarding its preservation.  So they tore them all down to “beautify” the area and set a proper stage for the feeling they wanted to create.
If we aren’t preserving the way it actually was, is it still historical preservation?  Or is it revisionist history?  What if we we preserve the way the building actually was originally, but disregard what it became over the years? And then I wondered…..if simply expanding historical preservation to include the experiences and perspectives of all the people who lived it (i.e., minority groups like African-Americans, Polish-Americans, and women) is often met with cries of “revisionist history!”, why wouldn’t an actual revision of history be met with such resistance? Is it so important to us to maintain the “reality” of history we have formed in our culture’s collective mind’s eye that we are willing to overlook inaccuracies in one area while we actively seek to create inaccuracies in another?  
And perhaps most importantly, what are we losing in our attempts to hold on?  
With the creation of a “fitting setting” for Independence Hall, we may have quite adeptly captured the “historical context and character” of the nearly 250-year-old hall that helped give birth to our nation – and there isn’t much of an argument against this, the awe that even mere pictures of the Hall inspire is tremendous something that is without doubt worth every attempt to hold onto.
But what did we lose?  When we cleared away the surrounding “buildings whose diversity is only surpassed by their ugliness” (as an architect noted in the early 1900’s) it is possible we lost a golden opportunity to  showcase the very point of our nation – embracing and valuing diversity without holding any single one as “higher”, “better”, “more desirable” than another?
One of the more intriguing interpretative strategies we read about during our research into expanding historic preservation to include women’s history was the use of heritage trails.  By now, we are all familiar with heritage trails – those walking and driving journeys around to different historic sites that historical commissions, museums, public agency, community organizations, and even private individuals put together to motivate us put on our shoes, grab our keys, and plan a trip to explore history.  
And motivate us it does, who doesn’t read about a particular heritage trail and decide they *don’t* want to make that particular journey?
Which is why a historic preservation master’s thesis we stumbled across piqued our interest with its title, “Commemoration and Protest: The Use of Heritage Trails to Connect Women’s History with Historic Sites” submitted to the University of Pennsylvania by Marissa J. Moshier.
We’re not going to bore you with a full-blown rehash and review of the excellent information Moshier conveyed in her thesis, mostly because you can read it for yourself right here, but also because we’d really rather make a better use of this space (and your time) to discuss this topic.

You see, for all the information Moshier presented (and believe us, you should read it, because it was a ton), it was what was missing from that information that stood out the most to us.  For all those wise, wise words, for all her obviously extensive research, for all the astute observations and connections she made, for all the motivation her writing inspired, for all her details on the women’s heritage trails in states and cities across the country, there was one thing Moshier failed to include in her information: any mention of a woman’s history heritage trail in Pennsylvania.

Because there isn’t one.

So what we would LOVE to discuss is how a heritage trail could be developed, promoted, and used by the public to connect women’s history to the rich network of historic sites we have here.

Here are our beginning questions, let’s open up the discussion.  Feel free to give us your thoughts in response to these questions, or respond with more questions you might have.

           Who would develop this heritage trail?             

                                            How would they develop it?   

   Would it be contained to publicly operated sites?  

             Could it blend both publicly and privately operated sites?  

     What were the important contributions women made in 
     Pennsylvania’s history?  

                                What were the roles they played 
throughout our history?  

              How are those contributions and roles already 
              represented in our history sites?  

  How can we connect those sites with a heritage trail?  

                       Which sites would we use?  

            Which sites specifically include women’s history already?  
    Are they the best ones to use to tell women’s stories in 
   Pennsylvania history?  
Do we need to develop new ones?