Landmarks of Punishment: Eastern State and Charles Street

From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (which laid out the square-mile grid that structured settlement west of the Mississippi) to the McMillan Plan of 1901 (which created the National Mall in Washington), from Greek revival houses to Victorian homes, from City Beautiful parkways to mental institutions and prisons, American architecture has pursued various national ideals through the careful organization of space for public and private life. Perhaps more than any other Western nation, the United States has tried to solve social problems through architecture. The reform instinct — the belief that the design of residences, institutions and even entire cities should consciously aim to influence behavior — is arguably more pervasive here than anywhere else.

Today, American cities remain littered with the physical remains of successive reform movements — with constructions of brick, stone and steel that embody long-past ideals. The photographs presented here describe and interpret two of the most impressive of these artifacts. The Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed in 1829 in Philadelphia, and the Charles Street Jail, completed in Boston in 1851, were among the most influential and controversial U.S. prison structures in the 19th century.

Eastern State Penitentiary pioneered what became known as the “Pennsylvania Plan” — a revolutionary design organized around a “panopticon rotunda,” with eight radiating wings housing individual cells. As such, Eastern State embodied contemporary attitudes about the nature of crime and human behavior — attitudes considered progressive at the time. The designers of Eastern State believed that prisoners placed in solitary confinement would be compelled to contemplate their misdeeds, seek Christian forgiveness, and learn new and more productive ways to conduct themselves — and that in this way they might successfully rejoin society. The prison’s architect, John Haviland, created an imposing, Gothic-style structure with exterior stone walls thirty feet high, and with a massive tower at the center of it all, symbolizing the watchful eye of the prison guard, and of the state.

The Charles Street Jail typified another of the era’s penal reform movements. The proponents of what became known as the “Auburn Plan,” named after a prison built in 1820 in Auburn, New York, rejected the notion of strict solitary confinement; instead they believed that days spent in silent community, with inmates working alongside one other, followed by evenings spent in individual cells, would be the more humanitarian treatment. Designed by the architect Gridley J.F. Bryant, the cruciform building with a central tower — a prime example of Boston’s “granite style” — influenced the spatial organization of numerous U.S. prisons in the late 19th and 20th century.

Today, of course, the penal philosophies that animated both Eastern State Penitentiary and Charles Street Jail have been discredited. Even in its day Eastern State provoked debate, with many arguing that solitary confinement and panoptical observation were dehumanizing, and that they made inmates insane. Charles Dickens, who visited the prison on his American tour of 1842, called the system “cruel and wrong.” If not as notorious as Eastern State, the Auburn-influenced prisons were characterized by codes of rigid discipline, with corporal punishment used to break the will of the hardest criminals. Today both structures have been transformed. Eastern State, which ceased penal operations in 1971, is now a popular tourist attraction (its seasonal calendar includes a Halloween-themed event). Charles Street, which officially closed in 1990, has been gutted and transformed into the heart of a luxurious hotel.

In his 1922 study of collective memory, the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs argued, “A society first of all needs to find landmarks.” 1 Halbwachs was no sentimental lover of old buildings; rather, he believed that landmarks were essential to creating and perpetuating the collective record that made a society cohere and endure. We offer these photographs — taken in the 1990s, when the fate of these structures was uncertain — as a significant but troubling record of the struggle to devise forms for coping with that most difficult of social problems: how to punish and reform those who transgress the rules of society. We also hope that our photographs will spur further thought about our contemporary prison ethos. These days we rarely speak of “rehabilitation,” and the word “penitence” has become antiquated. Arguably, we no longer aspire to construct prisons along humane or reformist lines. We no longer build prisons in central cities but out of town, and out of sight, where we can ignore them and the social divisions and inequities they now reinforce. And yet we continue, even in this era of deep government retrenchment, to invest in prisons; they threaten to be among the major public landmarks of our age.

Editors' Note

The photographs of Eastern State Penitentiary and Charles Street Jail are part of the collection of Iguana Photo.

Paul Johansen & Max Page, “Landmarks of Punishment: Eastern State and Charles Street,” Places Journal, October 2010. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Arthur Allen, retired architect, Vancouver, B.C.

    11.04.2010 at 12:36

    The term "moral architecture" is often applied to 19th century prisons, including Eastern State. (see David Rothman's "The Discovery of the Asylum") How can a prison, then or now, be called a "moral" or "good" design, if it functions to practice capital punishment ?

    A radial plan, (Eastern State,) is not a true panopticon; it lacks a view into every cell from a central station.