A museum is a place where one should lose one's head. It's an interesting experience walking around by yourself...
Holmesburg Prison is part of the City of Philadelphia Prison System. Built in 1896 and in continuous use until 1995, the facility is located at 8215 Torresdale Ave in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was the site of a controversial decades-long dermatological, pharmaceutical, and biochemical weapons research projects involving testing on inmates.
The prison is also notable for several major riots in the early 1970s as well as a report released in 1968 of the results of an extensive two-year investigation by the Offices of the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the District Attorney of Philadelphia documenting hundreds of cases of the rape of inmates.
The 1998 book Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, by Allen Hornblum, documents clinical non-therapeutic medical experiments on prison inmates at Holmesburg.
In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society's goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design.
He proposed a radical idea: to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal's heart. The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program.
It took the Society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build the kind of prison it suggested: a revolutionary new building on farmland outside Philadelphia.
Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor.
The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.
High on a hill, behind a chain link fence and past the overgrown yard, is the grand Upton – an architectural treasure by one of Baltimore's earliest architects that has witnessed nearly 200 years of change in the Upton neighborhood that shares the building's name. In the 1830s, Baltimore lawyer David Stewart hired architect Robert Carey Long, Jr. – or so we think, no confirmation of Long as the architect has survived – to design his country villa. R. Carey (as he liked to call himself) was one of Baltimore's first professionally trained architects designing the Lloyd Street Synagogue (now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland), the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, and the main gate of Green Mount Cemetery among more than 80 buildings across the country. Son of a Baltimore merchant who armed seven schooners and two brigantines as privateers during the Revolutionary War, Stewart became a prominent local lawyer and got involved in politics, serving a brief month as a US Senator in 1849.
The mansion is widely recognized as the last surviving Greek Revival country house in Baltimore. It remains secluded in urban West Baltimore, sitting high above the neighboring buildings and surrounded by brick and stone walls. In the mid-19th century, you would have seen a grand porch with Doric columns and ironwork bearing the Stewart family crest. Inside the building, you could have observed more than a dozen marble and onyx fireplaces, a main entrance hall, a curved oak staircase, and a banquet room that was so large it has since been divided into multiple rooms. David Stewart enjoyed entertaining guests in his mansion and hosted lavish, indulgent parties there so frequently that he developed gout.
After Stewart's death in 1858, the house was purchased by the Dammann family, who owned the house for so many generations that it became known as "the old Dammann mansion." The family left in 1901, and the house found itself empty for the first time, but not the last. The mansion's next owner, musician Robert Young, took a cue from David Stewart and used the spacious and opulent mansion to host "several brilliant social affairs where hundreds of guests moved about in the spacious rooms." Young would be the last owner to use the building as a home, and his time there was short-lived – he found the house too drafty and abandoned after less than 3 years.
The commercial life of the Upton mansion began in 1930 when one of Baltimore's first radio stations, WCAO, moved into the building. Extensive alterations were made to accommodate WCAO – tall twin radio towers were installed at the edge of the property, walls were torn down and rooms partitioned off to create studios and equipment rooms. The next commercial venture in Upton came in 1947, when WCAO sold it to the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts. Founded by Dr. J. Leslie Jones, the school was originally opened with the intentions of creating a parallel program to that offered at Peabody, a renowned music school not open to African-American students at the time, and at its height in the early 1950s had over 300 students. The school eventually closed in the mid-1950s after desegregation granted black students equal access to public music schools. In 1957, the Baltimore City School System moved in to the building and used it first as the special education "Upton School for Trainable Children No. 303," and then the headquarters for Baltimore City Public School's Home and Hospital Services program. Unfortunately, Upton has sat empty since BCPS left in 2006.
Upton has a rich cultural legacy that extends beyond its use as a social hot spot, a radio station, and a school. In the 1960s, the mansion was chosen as the community namesake during an urban renewal project going on in the neighborhood at the time. As a physical landmark of the neighborhood for more than a century, the Upton mansion's name was intended to serve as "the symbol of a physical and human renewal in West Baltimore." Despite its presence on the National Register of Historic Places and the Baltimore Landmark List, the city-owned building remains empty and unmaintained in west Baltimore. In 2009, Preservation Maryland included it on a list of the state's most endangered historic places, and the building is threatened by vandalism and neglect. Today, the mansion awaits a new owner, someone willing to restore the beautiful building to its historic potential.
Urban Exploring is always an adventure with the Fellowship I have with my friends Ariston and Ray. We never know what we're gonna find or the hijinks we're going to get into.
Our journey to this place began as we entered a long dark corridor. Leading us to winding twists and turns, climbing and descending thru the darkness. On our way we saw the signs of humans who had once thrived here but long since surrendered their grand creations to the past.
Finally we reached our destination, the main hall, where great power once resonated throughout the land. Our confident companion Ariston's famous words are always "We'll never get caught". Today he also uttered "What if we encounter a Balrog?", we laughed...
As we reached the bridge over a vast chasm, there, unbelievably before us appeared a Balrog! Thanks Ariston! And what does Ariston say next... "Fly you fools!" But always prepared as explorers, Ray stepped forward, willing to sacrifice himself for us to get away, and raised forth his Tripod of Light! He screamed "You shall not pass!" as he slammed his tripod two times upon the ground.
In a great ball of light, the Balrog was cast off the bridge and sent down into the shadowy depths. But in horror it grabbed Ray and took him down with him. "NOOOO" we cried! As we pulled ourselves together and wondered what we were going to tell Kit, and WHO was going to tell her... we turned and to our befuddled minds but great comfort, there stood our brother Ray, yet his clothes were now white...
"See, I told you guys we'll never get caught" says Ariston.