MERE mention of the World Monuments Fund's list of 100 ''most endangered'' cultural heritage sites conjures up thoughts of exotic expeditions to romantic ruins. But you don't have to go to Cambodia for Angkor or to Croatia for Dubrovnik's old harbor to see a valued and threatened historical site. The Eastern State Penitentiary, one of seven American sites on the fund's list, is a train ride or car trip away, in downtown Philadelphia.
In terms of beauty, Eastern State cannot compete with, say, the Temple of Hercules in Rome or the Taj Mahal in India. But this prison, which is open Wednesdays through Sundays during the summer, has a fascinating history and some manifest charms. Certainly it is endangered. The money raised from tours of the site is barely maintaining its sprawling hulk, which has been empty since its final 28 prisoners were moved to modern penal quarters in 1970.
Years earlier, Al Capone did time at Eastern State. So did Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber and determined escape artist. Testing his luck in 1945 with 11 other inmates, he fled through a tunnel they had dug under the prison walls but was recaptured within hours.
Upstanding people, too, visited Eastern State over the years, including Charles Dickens, who traveled from England in 1842 specifically to see the prison and Niagara Falls. What interested them -- and secured Eastern State's place in history -- was its credo of solitary confinement. Built in the 1820's, the penitentiary repudiated physical punishment, then standard practice, in favor of isolation, reflection and work. Under these principles, a prison was a machine for reforming criminals.
Over the next century, some 300 prisons around the world were modeled on what came to be called the Pennsylvania System, even though Dickens, for one, warned against it. ''I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,'' he wrote after visiting Eastern State.
After much controversy that view eventually prevailed, the penitentiary was emptied and the remnants of this failed social experiment were almost lost. In the mid-1980's, Philadelphia invited proposals for the prison's reuse. The shopping center moguls who responded, however, had no interest in building boutiques in the cellblocks; they wanted to raze most of the penitentiary for a shopping center.
Preservationists held sway. Today Eastern State needs many repairs, but it is a welcome antidote for those tired of the ersatz, theme-park quality of many tourist attractions.
A Seedy Visage
On one recent day, the City of Brotherly Love provided the perfect backdrop for a prison visit. Fog draped the tops of Philadelphia's skyscrapers as my Amtrak train from Penn Station pulled into downtown. The air was thick and still. Taking my turn in the taxi queue, I told the driver my destination.
''What's that, a tourist attraction?'' he called back, gazing at my city clothes (chosen in case I had time for a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is just five blocks from the prison). He seemed to know the location, but I named the nearest street intersection, 22d Street and Fairmount Avenue, just in case.
It's a short ride ($4.50 on the meter). As you approach on 22d Street, the prison's granite-gray crenelated walls suddenly appear on Cherry Hill. (Its high location was purposely chosen to frighten Philadelphia's children into behaving.) The gatehouse area, the entry point, is deserted. Weeds grow though the sidewalks. The gate is encrusted with rust. A windowpane is broken. Inside, cobwebs dangle in the corners of the damp, cracking ceilings. Disney couldn't do better.
A reminder that this is the real thing comes from staff members, who ask visitors to sign a liability release and pay the $7 admission. Rows of brightly colored hard hats, which visitors must wear, are another tipoff.
Visitors can roam parts of the prison on their own from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. or take the guided tour, which begins every hour on the hour until 5 P.M. and lasts about an hour. It's worth it to wait for a guide. In the meantime there are distractions, the least being a tiny shop with T-shirts, caps, posters and books like ''Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences.'' There is also an explanatory video, ''Let the Doors Be of Iron,'' and an exhibition, ''Work Behind Walls,'' detailing prisoners' chores and hobbies.
'It Didn't Work'
Hard hat donned, I joined a tour with about 10 others, one adult and some teen-agers who had clearly come together. First the guide gave a brief introduction explaining the prison's premise. ''It didn't work,'' he concluded cheerfully. And with that verdict, we walked toward Cellblock 1.
Inside the penitentiary's 30-foot-tall, 12-foot-thick walls, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Gothic fortress, it was easy to forget that the 10-acre site is in a gentrified residential neighborhood. Paint peels from the ceilings of the long, narrow arched corridors that form the cellblocks. On either side, every few feet, appears a cell. Some are stripped bare; others contain rusted cot frames and broken toilets. Rags and other debris hug the corridor walls.
Visitors get a feel for life behind the walls by stepping inside the one refurbished cell. At 8 by 12 feet, it is roomier than today's prison cells, with space for a bed, stool, workbench, desk (plus a Bible) and toilet. The walls are whitewashed, antiseptically so, and there's a small skylight, circular in some cells to signify the eye of God. Opposite the entrance is another door, which leads to an outdoor exercise cell of equal size that could be visited for two scheduled hours a day.
Not bad, but there are rubs. The doors are small, forcing prisoners to stoop to enter as a reminder to repent and to be humble. The barrel-vaulted ceilings cause an echo, the better to prevent prisoners from trying to talk to each other.
Solitude was intended to prevent the spread of criminality while providing for reflection and penitence. ''They found evidence of insanity,'' my guide said. The teen-agers stared blankly at the white walls, perhaps puzzled.
In the corridors, guards would patrol the length of the cellblocks. There was central surveillance, too. The architect, John Haviland, broke as much new ground with his design as the prison did with its philosophy. He arranged the original seven cell-blocks like the spokes on a wagon wheel emanating from a central rotunda. From there, the key guard could see if anything went amiss. Unless something did, prompting them to enter, the other guards could not see into the cells; only the Higher Authority could do that.
This design was expensive. Indeed, Eastern State, built to house 250 inmates, cost $780,000 and was reputed to be the most expensive building in the United States.
The Prison Gives Up
By 1850, Eastern State's original plan was already going awry. A glut of prisoners led to the sharing of cells. Eight new cellblocks were eventually added to the seven. Some had two stories, leaving no exercise areas for those on the upper level. In a further inequity, second-story cells were built smaller to preserve the skylights in those on the ground floor. Eastern State's system was crumbling.
The Pennsylvania model was officially abandoned in 1913, and the penitentiary became a normal prison. Capone, who was incarcerated there in 1929-30, was even allowed to decorate his cell with antiques, oil paintings and Oriental rugs.
Visitors on the tour pass through Cellblock 4 into the prison yard, overgrown with weeds. They get peeks at the exercise cells, the old baseball diamond, the black cells used to punish bad behavior and death row. Along the way, they hear prison lore. After an hour had passed, there were still many questions: for example, were women imprisoned here? (Yes, only on second floors.) Like a good banquet speaker, the guide left his charges wanting more.
Perfect for Halloween
As my tour mates removed their hard hats and lingered in the shop, I headed off to meet Sean M. Kelley, Eastern State's program director and sole year-round, full-time employee. He has one tough job.
After years of neglect and exposure to the elements, the prison's walls and roofs are starting to collapse. The Pennsylvania Prison Society, which administers Eastern State, is struggling to pay for maintenance and new roofs to halt the decay. Some areas are off limits, like the mess hall, where the roof is caving in. The main source of money is admissions, especially for special events. On Sunday, for instance, the prison will commemorate the storming of the Bastille. The neighborhood is having its annual free block party from 4 to 9 P.M., with live music and French food prepared by area restaurants. The festivities culminate at 6 P.M., when people dressed as French revolutionaries armed with muskets and cannons and singing ''La Marseillaise'' storm Eastern State's gates.
Atop the towers will be Marie Antoinette, tossing Tastykakes and Twinkies into the crowd, which decides her fate at the guillotine. Eastern State is open for tours through the evening, at the usual $7 admission. (The rain date is July 20.)
Halloween is another treat, and the penitentiary's biggest fund-raiser. For five evenings, Oct. 28 through Nov. 1, the prison is transformed by theatrical lighting and music into a haunted house. Actors lead the tours, telling ghost stories along the way. Admission is $15.
The next two years will be crucial for Eastern State. Administrators are preparing to take on a challenge grant from the city. For five years beginning in 1999, it will give Eastern State $1 million a year if the prison can raise $4 million elsewhere annually.
Preserving the Dust
The $25 million total would pay to stabilize the whole building, partly restore the rotunda and three cell-blocks, renovate several cells to illustrate various historical periods, build a visitors' center and install heating and air-conditioning to keep the prison open year-round. But that's all.
''Most of the site is more powerful in its current condition than if it were scrubbed clean,'' Mr. Kelley said.
Ideally, money would also go to reclaim the multidenominational chapel and movie theater, which would be used for lectures and discussions. ''We want to discuss issues of criminal justice and the development of prisons once again,'' Mr. Kelley said. ''We have a summer symposium now, but everyone has to wear hard hats.''