Sacred Places Summer 2009 - Page 16

TECHNICAL BRIEF The Synagogue before and after restoration SYNAGOGUE RESTORATION AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site - Philadelphia, PA EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY, a National Historic Landmark in Philadelphia, PA, was designed by John Haviland and opened in 1829. It was the first prison to use the radial plan and exclusively house inmates in solitary confinement. The design, known as the Pennsylvania System, later became the model for hundreds of prisons worldwide. Situated along the alley of Cellblock 7 is a synagogue used by the small population of Jewish inmates from the early decades of the 20th century until the prison’s closing in 1971. Established in the early 1920s, the synagogue was largely supported and sustained by Alfred W. Fleisher, then President of the Board of Trustees, and a number of dedicated volunteers from the local Jewish community. Upon Fleisher’s untimely death in 1928, the Jewish inmates dedicated the synagogue in his memory. Services were held regularly until the prison was shut down. During the years that followed, the abandoned Eastern State and its small synagogue fell into a state of disrepair. When Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) reopened the prison for tours in 1994, both the route to the synagogue and the synagogue itself were too dangerous to include on 15 • Sacred Places • • Summer 2009 the tour. Yet this compelling space was important to re-open. The first effort toward that goal came when student interns from the University of Pennsylvania researched the history of Jewish life at Eastern State and the origin of the synagogue. Further student investigations included a condition assessment and an archaeological investigation to recover significant artifacts. The Synagogue Restoration Committee, formed by ESPHS’s Board of Directors, used this research as the foundation to guide the restoration plan and support the fundraising effort for the restoration work.