Address: 8215 Torresdale Avenue
Year Built: 1896
Architect: Wilson Bros. & Co.
Current Use: A police canine unit is housed in part of the prison
The history of Holmesburg Prison is steeped in violence and moral ambiguity, encompassing medical testing, riots, race warfare and prisoner torture. Holmesburg was built in 1896 in the Northeast neighborhood of Holmesburg to serve as Philadelphia’s county jail. It is a classic example of the penitentiary as fortress, with massive fieldstone walls and a spoke and wheel design.
By the 1920s, Holmesburg had earned a reputation for brutal conditions and hardened inmates. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and allowed only 20 minutes of exercise a day. A 1922 expose by the Evening Public Ledger called it “the worst prison in the United States.”
The prison next made headlines in 1938, when the “bake-oven murders” horrified Philadelphians. Guards were punishing prisoners by putting them in a small building outfitted with oversized steam radiators and turning up the heat. Inmates called it the “Klondike.” On a particularly hot August weekend, four prisoners died when the temperature inside reached almost 200 degrees. An investigation by the governor of Pennsylvania following a local police cover-up resulted in involuntary manslaughter convictions for the deputy warden and guard.
Beginning in the 1950s, Holmesburg was the site of extensive medical testing on prisoners for clients such as Dow and Johnson & Johnson. University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman ran a research program that started with small trials of topical ointments and creams, and eventually grew to hundreds of testing protocols several of which involved dioxins and radioactive isotopes. The CIA also found Holmesburg fertile ground, testing more than a dozen psychotropic drugs there over the course of a decade. Holmesburg ended all medical testing in 1974.
In 1973, two Black Muslims stabbed the warden and deputy warden to death. The current county jail, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Center, is named after them. Holmesburg closed in 1995, but a wing was reopened to lock up protestors arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Some Community Stakeholders
Employees of the Philadelphia Prison System, inmates at the nearby Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, former Holmesburg Prison inmates, residents of the surrounding neighborhood
Possible Artistic Uses & Limitations
Holmesburg prison is a vast building with a main rotunda with panoptican as well as hundreds of individual cells, some containing remaining bunk beds. There are also large vacant rooms such as meal halls and vocational rooms, plus outdoor recreational spaces such as a large basketball court and a baseball field. Electricity is extremely limited in the space and a generator would most likely be required for any serious electrical needs. The cells are lit through natural light from a slit in the roof of each cell. We encourage those interested in getting a better understanding of the space to visit Eastern State Penitentiary because of the similar physical layout and cells.
Hidden City Philadelphia has secured provisional interest and commitment to participate from the owners or stewards of prospective sites for the 2013 festival. We cannot guarantee final festival participation for any site, as many are subject to transitional forces, such as changes in ownership or stewardship, development, hazmat remediation, public-private jurisdiction, access restrictions and, in some cases, continued physical deterioration.
With that said, we have secured interest and willingness from site owners and stewards to engage in a discovery process with artists, partner organizations, and other stakeholders concerning creative projects and public engagement. The realization of any artistic project for the festival will be the result of a collaborative process with, and eventual collective approval of, Hidden City staff, advisors, community stakeholders, and site owners.
Hidden City’s staff are facilitators and advocates with the goal of bringing about a productive and mutually satisfying relationship between artists and the other stakeholders essential to any creative process located in places where art making is not a regular activity.