York Town Square

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Could York County’s old Chestnut Street prison be used for fundraising tours?

This image comes from the front of the Eastern State Penitentiary brochure. The long-closed Philadelphia prison was America’s first penitentiary, constructed to inspire penitence in those detained. It’s now a museum raising the question about whether York County, Pa.’s old jail could be used for fundraising purposes. Other posts of interest: Old York County, Pa., jail on endangered list and Prison listing brings back food loaf memories and ‘There were only so many cells in that old stone prison.

Look east from several points at York’s Sovereign Bank Stadium, and you’ll see a fortress-like, ruddy building rising high well beyond the outfield fence.

That’s York County’s old Chestnut Street Prison, vacated in 1979, when inmates were moved to a brand-new lockup near the county-owned Pleasant Acres in Springettsbury Township.

The old jail has been for sale for many years. One prospect considered making it a restaurant. Some places – Boston, for example – have converted old prisons into apartments.

The old building is difficult and expensive to knock down because its built, well, like a prison…

Eastern State Penitentiary original had seven cellblocks, radiating from a central observation room like spokes on a wheel. A brochure states that the prison had water and central heat before the White House.

Perhaps the folks running – and restoring – Eastern State Penitentiary as a museum can offer lessons for York countians.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. has thoughtfully and effectively restored several of the prison’s cells, long cellblocks, chapels and exercise yards. They’ve done it through a well-focused educational lens. Tourists are offered audio tours at $12 a pop to browse through an ample cross-section of the massive complex.

Al Capone was there for a stay, and his cell is restored to its original cushy, lamp-lit condition.

Indeed, York County has a celebrated link to the prison. Glenalvin Goodridge, photographer-son of prominent York businessman William C. Goodridge, was sent there on trumped-up rape charges in the 1860s. There, he contracted tuberculosis before Gov. Andrew Curtin released him, and he later died of the disease.

OK, here’s one lesson for York County.

Don’t make the Chestnut Street prison a museum. The York area has enough museums, and they’re expensive to renovate and operate.

But here’s the thing. Some cash-strapped group should lease York’s old prison for a couple of hours a month for fund-raising tours.

Parts of its interior must be safe because real estate agents have showed it off to prospective tenants. So, it could be made ready for limited, controlled audiences who would pay to see its interior.

Organizations could install simple placards to tell the prison’s story and charge $7-$10 a head for a simple walk through. People would line up.

Or consider this use, if conditions are safe enough:

Again for a fundraiser, some group could lease a top floor to watch the York Revs play down below at Sovereign Bank Stadium. Spectators can get the bird-eye view – admittedly the action would be far away – plus watch the game and hear the action via live streaming video at www.yorkrevstv.com .

The Eastern State Penitentiary’s brochure says this of its museum: “The prison stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and a surprising, eerie beauty.”

The York County Prison no doubt is all of that as well, ready to help some needy organization raise money and create excitement in that often forgotten end of the city.

Other prison-related posts and photographs:

Wanted: ‘Inmates’ to fill old York County prison
If Boston can turn prison in hotel, York can …
York’s Chestnut Street fortress bad symbol of York’s past
For sale: 100-year-old fortress-like prison
Old York County jail on endangered list
Prison listing brings back food loaf memories
‘There were only so many cells in that old stone prison