A Prison's Colored Past: Revealing the Paint History of a Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

Watch ONLINE via ZOOM from the safety and comfort of your home. A link with instructions will be provided one hour prior to this virtual lecture. 

"A Prison's Colored Past: Revealing the Paint History of a Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary"

presented by Elizabeth Trumbull, Manager of Historic Preservation and Architectural Conservation at Eastern State Penitentiary and Andrew Fearon, Chief Architectural Conservator at Materials Conservation.

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is considered to be the first penitentiary built in the United States. The penitentiary’s innovative radial plan, designed by English-born architect John Haviland, proved influential on a global scale as an architectural marvel built to instill penitence in the hearts of its inhabitants through solitary confinement. Active from 1829 to 1971, ESP documents the evolution of the American penal system woven into a complex building chronology spanning over 140 years. 


In 2019 conservators discovered evidence of both decorative and pictorial painted finishes that has redefined the understanding of life in prison at ESP. The careful mechanical removal of an extant plaster layer from the walls uncovered a rich repository of stratigraphic evidence of finish histories. Of particular significance are features that closely align with one of the few documented inmate-painted murals that appears in a photograph from the 1930s. Through the assembly of a complex puzzle of diagnostic features, a clearer, more accurate picture of a forgotten cultural history is transformed into color.


As the first dedicated investigation of architectural finishes within a single cell at ESP, the newly found material record has prompted issues of authenticity, challenging site stewardship to present a more dynamic narrative of prison life. This landmark study of paint history at ESP provides a new path for the interpretation of cell interiors and related rehabilitative environments while casting new light on the artwork of the incarcerated.


$15 | General Admission

$10 | Alliance Member 

Free | Students*

If you have been affected by the pandemic and would like to attend this virtual lecture but cannot afford to do so, please email Jennifer Robinson jennifer@preservationalliance.com for complimentary access.

*Email photo of valid student ID to Jennifer Robinson to receive student discount code.

View speaker schedule at https://www.preservationalliance.com/fall-speaker-series/.

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