OSSINING, N.Y. -- One of Westchester's most notorious locations could soon become one of its biggest tourist attractions.
At the Westchester Municipal Officials Association annual meeting on Sept. 19, Tracey Corbitt, the principal planner of the Westchester County Department of Planning and Ossining Mayor William Hanauer discussed plans for a Sing Sing Museum, which has been in the works for years.
In front of 100 officials from more than 45 municipalities at Harbor Square in the village, Corbitt and Hanauer discussed the history of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which is still active as a maximum security prison and how a museum could be a positive economic generator. Tourism is a $53 million industry in Westchester.
"People don't realize that Sing Sing exists," Corbitt said, of the 65-acre facility. "It's a real place."
Corbitt said the purpose of the museum would be to show how Sing Sing and America's penitentiary system relates to American democracy.
"The penitentiary system originated in America as we broke away from tyranny," Corbitt said. "They wanted to turn criminals into productive members of society rather than having them suffer."
Sing Sing was founded in 1825 as a labor prison, as the prisoners worked on many projects using the Auburn system, meaning they worked in absolute silence.
Some of the most notorious gangsters were incarcerated at Sing Sing, including Lucky Luciano, and people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin visited the prison.
Many of Hollywood's early gangster films were set at Sing Sing, and 614 people, including spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed at Sing Sing.
While turning a notorious prison into a tourist attraction might seem odd, Corbitt said it's not unique.
"Reality tourism is popular," Corbitt said. "It's what people want. You have to appeal to niche markets.
Alcatraz in San Francisco attracts more than a million visitors a year, while San Quentin in California and Angola in Louisiana have museums. Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania attracts 250,000 visitors annually. Alcatraz and Eastern State are no longer prisons.
"Sing Sing has better name recognition than Eastern State," Corbitt said. "It's in our cultural language."
Hanauer said the phrases "the big house" and "going up the river" refer to Sing Sing. He was traveling in Italy and said he saw someone wearing a Sing Sing shirt.
The Sing Sing Museum would be run by Historic Hudson Valley. Corbitt said there are 25 million people within 2.5 hours of Sing Sing, making it an optimal day trip and there would be numerous construction jobs as the museum is constructed.
"This is a historical document," Hanauer said.