Fairmount, Philadelphia--At $55 million, Eastern State Penitentiary's moat project--also known as the Big House Big Dig--is, by far, the largest improvement project the nonprofit Eastern State Association (ESA) has undertaken since it began operating the site in 1989.
"Back in 2001, we had a pretty big bake sale to cover the $12,000 needed for sidewalk repairs out in front of the penitentiary. That was really our biggest thing," said Gail Robertson, assistant to the treasurer for the ESA. "The moat project is daunting but we'll get it done. There's really no doubt in my mind."
Many area residents, however, are trying desperately to place doubts in Robertson's mind.
The penitentiary was completed in 1829 and remained active until 1971. Built on an open hill (Fair Mount) north of the city center, the compact urban landscape to the south quickly engulfed the formidable structure by mid-century. The wheel-spoke design was the first of its kind in the world and allowed one guard to keep watch over multiple cell blocks simply by standing at the confluence of the long hallways.
Historic photographs and charcoal drawings clearly indicate that there was never a moat, not in the 1800's or 1900's, not even in the numerous designs presented before construction commenced. The new moat will encircle the entire site, be twenty-five feet deep and twenty feet wide. Water from the Schuylkill River will be used to fill the wide trench, which is expected to take three weeks with five, 120-horse power pumps and miles of 4-inch fire hoses.
Why a moat and why now? The organization wants the site to appear even more castle-like so to intercept more Europe-bound tourists (seeking Old World castles). The National Historic Landmark already draws huge crowds, but the moat plan hopes to push the site to Niagara Falls tourist numbers--in the gagillions.
"Listen, the Penitentiary's architecture is amazing, a thing of beauty," said Tucker Goldstein, one of the 13-member board of advisers for the organization. "But a moat would take this from a Mom and Pop shop to a Mom, Pop, Uncle and Great Uncle shop. It's the right move and the right time."
Shops along Fairmount Ave are bitterly opposed to the moat plan, from Gorbin's Apothecary to Baglioni's Italian Bistro to the CVS there are scant supporters. Residents have been crying out en masse.
"I really don't get why they need a moat," said Evelyn Brubaker, 56, a lifelong resident of Fairmount. "It was a prison not a castle. What purpose does a moat serve? If they were restoring a long ago filled-in moat, then that would be a different story."
"Sure it would look really neat to have a moat, but do we really want to lose all that free parking? Not me Jose," said Tim Glosters another resident of the neighborhood and owner of Cuddly Pet Ramps--a company that designs ramps for aging pets so they can access hard-to-reach cars and beds more easily.
Parking seems to be the issue that really has the community fighting this project. Where to store cars when they're not maneuvering through the tight streets has long been a problem in the City of Brotherly Glove Compartment. Too many cars, not enough space.
Some neighborhood residents, however, are convinced that the organization operating the museum is a cult whose members are preparing to move inside the walls permanently and use the moat to better defend themselves against government agencies looking to take them down.
"They're up to something and I don't know what," said one resident who only went by Dennis. "A moat!? Something stinks and it stinks real bad. They are planning something. Plus, moats in general can stink with all that stagnant water."