Planners work to preserve historic prison

May 18, 2007

A group of 10 alumni and 25 students from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning went to prison in April -- to help restore a crumbling kitchen building in the Eastern State Penitentiary complex in Philadelphia.

The massive prison, the largest building in the United States when it was built in 1829, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and is now an interpretive museum. 

Every year, city and regional planning and historic preservation planning (HPP) graduate students, as part of the course Fieldwork in History and Preservation (CRP 565), organize and conduct a work weekend on a historic site, along with some architecture students and several alumni in the Historic Preservation Planning Alumni organization.  

Past project sites have included Ellis Island, a store and theater in Liberty, NY (a project profiled by the National Park Service for Preservation Week), and the St. Roch Market in New Orleans in 2006.  

"Some years, alumni actually outnumber the students; this was the case at Ellis Island," said HPP associate professor Jeffrey Chusid, who teaches the fieldwork course and was the prison project's faculty adviser. "This reflects the important role that the alumni organization has played historically in this event."  

The penitentiary visit during the weekend of April 12-14 was preceded by a department field trip to Philadelphia in the fall and meetings with the historic site's staff.  

"We took a trip down beforehand to take measurements and figure out materials and costs and logistics," said Diedra Whittenburg, M.A. HPP '07, one of the project organizers along with Sara Johnson, M.A. HPP '09. "We planned the trip last semester and wanted to do a building that was small enough and also in need of repair, so we targeted the kitchen building."  

Like many structures in the 11-acre complex, the stone kitchen, built in 1903, had severely deteriorated since the prison was shut down in 1971. To prevent further damage from the elements, the Cornell group restored and replaced seven windows and built 15 window enclosures, using materials donated by Ithaca businesses.  

"It was crumbling around us, but we can't clean up the area -- there's a lot of stuff that needs to be documented," Whittenburg said. "You have to do a lot of preparation, and make sure you don't end up destroying the building while trying to preserve it."  

Scaffolding was used but it could not touch the building, she explained.  

"The students in the program are very sensitive to the issues surrounding the work weekend sites," said Elizabeth Blazevich, M.A. HPP '05, who now works with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization. "There's really an emphasis on knowing the background of the site before going there."  

Students learned from staff and residents about the prison's history and the surrounding Fairmount neighborhood before working on the site.  

"The presiding philosophy at Eastern State is to stabilize it as a ruin," said Greg Donofrio, M.A. HPP '00, a doctoral candidate who suggested the site for this year's project. He also has helped rebuild a greenhouse and stabilize an industrial building at the prison, and is organizing a group from Cornell to return and finish the window work in June.  

"What's remarkable is how receptive they are to having students work on the site," he said. "It's this great laboratory for preservationists and architecture students to get hands-on experience and to do documentation projects ... and they have the kind of institutional resources you might need to do projects there."  

For preservation alumni, the weekend was a chance to share their professional knowledge -- and to get their hands dirty.  

"Because I do more policy and community development work, I don't get to do a lot of the hands-on things," Blazevich said. "Coming back as an alum ... was a great opportunity to work with students and also revisit things you learned at Cornell, especially things like conservation and building materials."

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