Eastern State Penitentiary Digital Reconstruction: 1829-77


Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture.
As part of my dissertation for the MPhil degree in Architecture and Urban Studies.



When visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his 1831 report to the French government on the state of American prisons:

This Penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe. [1]

This penitentiary was, at its 1829 opening, the most expensive and largest structure ever built in the United States. Costing $432,000, this building covered a square area 670 feet to a side with walls 30-feet-high by 12-feet-thick and 23-feet-deep at the foundations. Inside, there was: “an entire seclusion of convicts from society and from one another, as that, during the period of their confinement, no one shall see or hear, or be seen or heard by any human being, except the jailor.”[2] About 400 prisoners were equipped with running water, steam heating, individual exercise yards, and (later) gas lighting.[3] These were “luxuries” that newspapers claimed not even the city’s wealthiest citizens could afford, and in an era when the U.S. White House lacked internal plumbing. The Register of Pennsylvania described in February 1830:

The rooms are larger, viz. containing more cubic feet of air, or space, than a great number of the apartments occupied by industrious mechanics in our city; and if we consider that two or more of the latter frequently work or sleep in the same chamber, they have much less room than will be allotted to the convicts [who live one to a room and] whose cells, moreover will be more perfectly ventilated than many of the largest apartments of our opulent citizens.[4]

Given the modern standards of service, technology, and location of this prison, it seems an odd choice to employ the external appearance of a medieval castle. American society lacked the medieval heritage of “old Europe.” The external castle appearance looked to history, while the internal facilities and technology all spoke of a modern future. Robin Evans explained the frequent use of castle imagery as follows: “It was the idea of the prison, not the fact of the prison, that was to engage the architect’s imagination, and the idea of the prison was built up from historical associations.”[5]

Of the several thousand visitors, tourists, and school children who passed through this attraction and the millions more who merely saw it from a distance, the imposing castle appearance was inescapable. In 1866, 76,000 visited, a large number considering more people visited as tourists than as prisoners.[6] In this same era: “The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium, followed each other in quick succession in these missions; and the printed official reports was subsequently issued, accompanied as they were by illustrative drawings, spread through Europe the fame of what was then generally regarded as a remarkable example of reform.”[7] Architect John Haviland (1792-1852) – known to contemporaries as the “jailor to the world”[8] – was a neo-classical architect by training and designed few other Gothic buildings over his 40-year career.[9] He intended these medieval battlements, narrow-slit windows, and portcullis gates to “strike fear into those who passed,” an instructive lesson to those contemplating a career in crime. Unexpected still is the fact that half the $432,000 construction cost was spent on the semi-decorative perimeter wall and external ornament, features not linked to reforming felons within and, in fact, invisible to the felons.[10] Yet, according to de Tocqueville, “It is of all prisons that which requires least a high enclosing wall, because each prisoner is isolated in his cell, which he never leaves.”[11] Why were Philadelphia’s political leaders and prison reformers so concerned with keeping up appearances?

This essay will present reasons for employing medieval imagery. Through analyzing the secular, cultural, and political reasons for this choice of style, we can understand the moral and educational agenda embedded in Eastern State’s appearance.[12] By analyzing the appearance and practice of solitary confinement taken here from 1829 to 1877, we can, by extension, understand more about the hundreds of radial prisons derived from Eastern State.



I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.


[1] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[2] W. Roscoe, “Prison Discipline: Letter II,” National Gazette and Literary Register, 20 September 1827. From the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Historical Newspapers Collection.
[3] Richard E. Greenwood, “Nomination form for Eastern State Penitentiary,” United States National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000680 (accessed 25 January 2020). This is the application submitted to protect this prison as a listed structure.
[4] Samuel Hazard, “Description of the Eastern Penitentiary of Penn’a,” The Register of Pennsylvania: devoted to the preservation of facts and documents and every other kind of useful information respecting the state of Pennsylvania 5, no. 7, 13 February 1830, 105.
[5] Robin Evans, “The Model Prison,” in The Fabrication of Virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840 (Cambridge University Press: 1982): 382-83.
[6] Jeffrey A. Cohen, David G. Cornelius, et al., “Construction and Alterations, 1822-65,” Eastern State Penitentiary: Historic Structures Report (Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force, 1994): 88.
[7] “County Prisons,” in The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline 10, no. 2 (Philadelphia, 1855): 60.
[8] Norman B. Johnston, “John Haviland, Jailor to the World,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 101-05, doi:10.2307/988164.
[9] John Haviland (author) and Hugh Bridgport (artist), The builder’s assistant containing the five orders of architecture, selected from the best specimens of the Greek and Roman (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1818-1821).
[10] Julie Nicoletta, “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses and the Reform Movement in Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, no. 3 (2003): 374, doi:10.2307/3592519.
[11] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[12] 1829: prison opened. 1877: prison significantly expanded and operations restructured. “Timeline,” Eastern State Penitentiary, https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline (accessed 25 January 2020).


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Digital Reconstruction

Created in Sketchup. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison. All measurements are accurate to reality.

With ambient music from freesound.org.


Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.

The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.

As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for animation.)

Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.


360° Panoramic View from Guard Tower


Virtual Reality Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1829 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.





Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.

This lecture is in two parts. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Essay on problems with the panopticon design
View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State

Computer Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon


“To say all in one word, [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think,
without exception, to all establishments whatsoever”

– Jeremy Bentham


Since the 1780s, hundreds of articles discuss Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. But, no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham gives in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to create an open source, virtual reality computer model of the panopticon.

Below, you can view the animation about this structure. Visit this link to view the panopticon in virtual reality. Or click here to download and edit my model (requires Sketchup).



Transcription of audio narration:

The panopticon is the form of the ideal prison, designed around 1787 by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Over 300 prisons around the world follow this model:

  1. A circle of diameter 100 feet
  2. Around the perimeter of this circle stretch cells
  3. Each cell is 9 feet deep
  4. And 48 per floor
  5. Each cell has a toilet, a bed, and space to work
  6. The cells rise six floors

On every other floor, there is a surveillance corridor, in which a guard may survey two floors of prisoners. The guard watches the prisoners. But the prisoners do not see the guard and do not know when they are watched. And must therefore act as if they were always watched. Three guards each see 96 prisoners, which makes 288 prisoners total.

In the center of the space, there is an auditorium, in which the prisoners may assemble to be lectured. A wall of screens may rise surrounding the chapel. And separating the prisoners from seeing into it, or from seeing each other from across the void of the empty space in middle.

Spiral staircases ascend through the space. And an iron and glass frame rises through the space and vaults over the chapel.

This completes the panopticon, the form of the ideal prison.


Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Essay on problems with the panopticon design
View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State Penitentiary



Supervised by Max Sternberg
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound
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