The longtime head of Eastern State Penitentiary wants to turn the historic former prison into more than just a tourist attraction and haunted house.
When Sara Jane “Sally” Elk GFA’84 GFA’85 first encountered Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), she had no idea that she’d wind up spending more time at the former prison than its most notorious inmates ever did. Elk came to the massive Philadelphia landmark some 35 years ago, on a field trip as part of her studies in historic preservation. While still a Penn student, she grew involved in grassroots and civic efforts to figure out what to do with the deteriorating white elephant. “It was just so intriguing to me, from an architectural standpoint,” she says now. Eventually, she’d go on to become the first executive director of a newly formed nonprofit—Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site—dedicated to preserving the building and fundraising for it.
Twenty years have passed and she’s still at the helm—a stint far lengthier than that of famed gangster Al Capone, who spent eight months in a relatively luxurious cell equipped with wooden furniture and trappings like rugs, lamps, and paintings. It’s longer still than the 11 years served by “Slick Willie” Sutton, the pugnacious criminal who supposedly once said that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”
During her own time, Elk has guided the former prison through gradual and numerous renovations that have brought it to its current condition as a “stabilized ruin.” As such, while the building has been safeguarded from further decay, its layers of history—notably, the scars left behind by decades of benign neglect followed by the more rapid deterioration after the prison was abandoned in 1970—have been honored, not erased. Through the years, Elk has also led the transformation of the fortress-like site into a thriving museum and tourist attraction. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of its opening to the public.
Now, Elk’s poised to steer Eastern State in a new direction. About five years ago, as the organization started writing a strategic plan—with the help of board members like Randall Mason, an associate professor of historic preservation at Penn, and University architect David Hollenberg GAr’75—“we saw an opportunity to inform visitors about mass incarceration in the United States,” Elk says. It’s already made inroads with exhibits like “Prisons Today,” which encourages visitors to learn more about and ponder the conundrums of mass incarceration, and the “Big Graph,” a 16-foot tall, 3,500-pound sculpture that illustrates the growth of US incarceration and how the numbers compare to every nation in the world.
Positioning itself as a thought leader on America’s status as possessing the world’s largest imprisoned population (approximately 2.2 million) means the museum will have to think hard about its existence as a tourist attraction. “Do people want to hear about this stuff while they’re on vacation?” Elk asks. “How can we dig into why this country is so punitive without shocking or lecturing them?”
Such questions might seem like a big departure for Elk, who initially came to work at ESP because of her interest in architecture. Elk, who grew up in Iowa, had landed in Philadelphia when her high school sweetheart/then-husband relocated for a new job. The young couple bought a fixer-upper on the Main Line and, after they later divorced, Elk thought maybe she could make a career out of restoring old houses. When she heard that Penn offered courses in historic preservation, she was hooked. While there, she interned for the Philadelphia Historical Commission and after graduation, joined its staff. “It gave me a good grounding in the history of Philadelphia,” Elk recalls. “My job was to look at old industrial properties where federal money was going to be spent. It was fascinating to shift my thinking from rural Iowa to a city like Philadelphia.”
Years later, she returned to Penn when Frank Matero (now Penn’s chair of the graduate program in historic preservation) founded the Center for Architectural Conservation. To this day, she says, her focus at ESP remains closely tied to the materials and construction methods of the building itself, drawing on classes she took during her stints at Penn.
No wonder she found “the story, the size, and the thought behind Eastern State—that it was an idea embodied in a building—all very captivating.” In March, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia rewarded her for her commitment to the site with the 2020 James Biddle Award for Lifetime Achievement in Historic Preservation.
Opened in 1829 and designed by architect John Haviland, the building quickly became the world’s most famous prison. Its iconic radial layout—a central hub encircled by seven long cellblocks—was part of a movement toward prison reform. Grounded in Quakerism, the approach favored housing criminals by keeping them isolated so that they had the opportunity to repent with dignity. Each cell—equipped with central heating, running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight, as well as its own patch of outdoor space—provided far more natural light, air, and privacy than what was the norm. The design, and the thinking behind it, was copied hundreds of times by prisons around the world. (By the turn of the 20th century, though, solitary confinement began to be viewed as inhumane.)
Even as the museum’s mission shifts to embrace the present and future of American incarceration, this heritage will not be forgotten. “We still have two Haviland roofs to repair at a cost of $1 million each,” Elk says, adding that all told, about $40 million worth of work remains, including the restoration of several outbuildings (including the facility’s kitchen) and three cellblocks currently not open to the public, as well as the planned construction of a visitors’ center.
Working in a chilly office just down the hall from Capone’s cell and walking those eerily church-like, incredibly solid cellblocks every day gives Elk plenty of time to reflect on how it must have felt to be marooned here. “It’s sobering,” she says. “The notion that if you’re left alone to contemplate your deeds, you’ll be the better for it. We know that’s misinformed now, as is the idea that any problem can be solved by simply putting people in an institution.”
While sensing the spirits who once called this place home is persistent throughout the year, it’s probably most pronounced during ESP’s popular “Terror Behind the Walls.” A longtime Halloween-themed haunted house that has grown to run for nearly two months out of the year, this moneymaker raises two-thirds of the museum’s $10 million operating income and accounts for about one-third of its more than 400,000 yearly visitors. With numbers like that, it’s hard for the institution to distance itself from a 40-minute experience that only briefly touches on what the museum has to offer and doesn’t exactly align with its renewed mission.
But in contrast to its earlier days, Elk points out that visitors now interact with actors who portray guards and doctors instead of knife-wielding prisoners in orange jumpsuits. And in response to criticism for the stress it puts on its Fairmount neighborhood, the institution has made peaceable gestures such as arranging offsite parking for “Terror” ticketholders and offering free museum memberships to immediate neighbors.
“In a lot of ways, we’ve been very challenged by the success of ‘Terror,’” Elk says. “So many folks don’t even know we’re open during the day, all day, every day. When they do come and spend two or three hours here, they’re blown away. This is just an amazing place.”