Young masons breathe new life into work of preserving Eastern State Penitentiary

The Eastern State Penitentiary building might look indestructible, but even a stone fortress needs maintenance.

To keep the Philadelphia landmark’s walls from tumbling down, PowerCorps PHL and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are bringing back traditional techniques while introducing young people to the field of preservation.

Previous attempts to restore the stone of the former prison have actually led to more holes and structural problems, said Sara Jane Elk, CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary historic site.

“What we want to do is get this out so we can put in a softer, lime-based mortar that is compatible with the age of the stone and will allow the stone to absorb water at the same rate during freeze/thaw situations,” said Elk.

The best materials for that work are those used when the prison turned criminal justice museum was built in the 1800s.

The prison, which closed in 1971 and reopened as a museum in 1994, is a gallery of preservation.

“These walls have probably seen eight different techniques over the years,” said David Gibney, a masonry expert and preservationist who is training PowerCorps members in the old-school way.

Working with small trowels and brushes, the team of PowerCorps volunteers is restoring the mortar of the walls with a traditional mix of lime and sand, leaving a 1-inch gap to be filled later with pointing.

Before this job, said volunteer Dyrek Davis, he’d only been to the prison for its annual haunted house event. But after a week’s work, the West Philadelphia resident said he knows a lot more about the place.

“I never knew that, back when this was built, it was all sand, there was no streets or pavement, no cars, none of that, it was sort of like a farm,” said Davis as he worked on an exterior wall in the prison’s baseball field. “It took a lot more people to build this place than we have here now,” he said with a laugh.

Gibney, who learned masonry through an apprenticeship himself, said it’s exciting to teach a new generation old techniques.

“This is the kind of job that will never be taken over by robots,” he said. “Nothing is perfectly square or plumb in old buildings like this, so you need to be able to flow with the stone.”

At 23, Davis is much younger than average historical preservationist — who is closer to 65.

Monica Rhodes with the National Trust for Historic Preservation said the future of historic places rests with young apprentices who have roots in the community.

“All preservation is local — similar to politics,” said Rhodes. “I think it’s an opportunity to have a deeper level of engagement. and so they have a different memory than just a tourist.”

The project is the trust’s first hands-on preservation experience — or HOPE — initiative in Philadelphia.

The program, which usually focuses on national parks, aims to expand preservation-training opportunities, and connect young people to local history, said Rhodes.

“Historic sites are powerful in determining meaning for a community … beauty,” she said. “It’s a way for folks to connect to their history.

“And having these students from Philadelphia doing this work on Eastern State right in their own backyard is great all around.”

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