By Renée S. Gordon
When I first learned that two friends were attending a conference in Philadelphia I immediately began to plan a tour for them that would show them everything the city has to offer. My plan was for trekking around the historic district and visiting all the main sites. I was proceeding blissfully along and then, SNOWSTORM. Suddenly, because the streets would not be clear in the morning, the best we could manage was an evening auto tour.
The tour turned out to be such a great adventure that I thought I should share it with you. Night time just might be the right time to see the sites. The streets were empty, the major locations are illuminated and one can cover more territory in a car and obtain an overview of what you want to see more closely in the daytime.
The path I took covered the history of the city, views of Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the West River Drive and Fairmount Park. Anyone with out of town guests will find this route both comprehensive and easy to follow. As host you can make selections as to what you might like to include or omit and you can spend as much time at each site as interest dictates.
Kristy and Sharon’s tour began within sight of City Hall with the iconic statue of William Penn on top. City Hall, a National Historic Landmark, is the largest and tallest masonry building in the world as well as the largest city hall in the country. It sits on 4.5-acres, has 605 rooms, is 549-ft. high and is approx. 480-ft. wide. The sculpture of William Penn, the tallest statue on any building in the world, adds 37-ft. to the building’s height. Penn was designed by Alexander Calder, is crafted of 14 pieces of bronze and was placed there in 1894 to overlook the city he founded.
Penn received a land grant in the New World from King Charles in 1681. Upon reaching his lands in 1683 he declared his desire to create a “greene country towne.” He found Lenni Lenape Indians already living there and informed his representatives that all land was to be purchased from the natives even though he had an English title to the acreage. As a result of this policy Philadelphia was the only unfortified colonial city. It was also the first planned city with streets on a grid system and five squares, four of which remain, Franklin, Logan, Rittenhouse and Washington.
We begin at Penn’s Landing with a view of the waterfront. Philadelphia’s location, at the juncture of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers made it a lucrative port for transport of European goods and West Indian imports and the city’s waters were constantly filled with vessels. Enslaved Africans were in the region, brought in by the Swedes and Dutch, as early as the 1630s. The earliest documented slave ship in Philadelphia, the Isabella, docked here and off-loaded its cargo of 154 Africans in 1694.
Slave sales took place at a variety of locations, on the ship, in taverns along Market Street, and most prominently in Washington and Market Squares. www.afrolumens.org/slavery/slavers
Benjamin Franklin looms large in our city’s history and two of my favorite sites are Franklin Court and The United States Postal Service Museum. Franklin’s 3-story house was torn down in 1812 and in 1976 the architect Robert Venturi’s steel framework was erected on the footprint of the original. The Court has an underground museum that features a film, a diorama, artifacts and personal items that belonged to Franklin. www.ushistory.org/tour/franklin-court.
The three adjacent houses were Franklin’s rental properties. Today they house an 18th-century printing office, an architectural exhibit and the only active pre-revolutionary post office in the country. The post office has the distinction of being the only one in the country that does not fly a US flag because there was not one during the colonial era. Inside there are exhibits and visitors can have letters cancelled with Franklin’s famous “B. Free Franklin” postmark. 3rd and Market.
Our newest museum, the $150-million National Museum of American Jewish History, is an architectural wonder located at 5th and Market. www.nmajh.org. Adjacent to the museum stands the 1895 Bourse Building the country’s first commodities exchange. This impressive steel-framed masonry building is as beautiful inside as out. It is filled with shops and is a good place to get a bite to eat.
Philadelphia’s historic area is considered the “most historic square mile in the country” and from the vantage point of Market Street between 5th and 6th you can see many of the gems in Philadelphia’s collection.
The National Constitution Center is dedicated to the task of relating the story of the Constitution throughout its history. State-of-the-art exhibits incorporate video, photographs, live theater and interactive displays. A highlight is Signers Hall where visitors can walk amidst life-sized sculptures of the signers.
Independence Visitor Center, on the north corner of the mall, is the best place to gather information on the sites and attractions. Directly across Market Street is our newest site, the President’s House. A framework outlines the mansion of America’s first two presidents and interprets the life of the enslaved that worked there for President Washington. This site is accessible all night. www.phila.gov/presidentshouse.
The President’s House abuts the Liberty Bell Center. This 2,000-lb bell was cast in 1751 and inscribed with the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It is believed to have been rung to summon Philadelphians to hear the initial reading of the Declaration of Independence. The glass pavilion allows people to see the bell at any hour. www.nps.gov/inde/liberty-bell-center
Erected in 1732, Independence Hall was home to the Second Continental Congress beginning in 1775. On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted and in September of 1787 the Constitutional Convention signed the US Constitution here. www.nps.gov/inde/independence-hall-1
Jefferson wanted a little seclusion to write the Declaration of Independence so he rented rooms in the suburbs, then 7th and Market, to work. The Graff, or Declaration House, is a reconstruction of Jefferson’s 1775 Georgian house, torn down in 1883. On the first floor you can visit a small museum that interprets the section on ending slavery that he was forced to remove. The second floor recreates his bedroom and sitting room.
North of Market, at 2nd between Arch and Race, the tour begins at Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously occupied street in the country. This 297-year old block contains 33 Federal-style and Colonial houses with two of them being restored and open to view.
The 1760 Betsy Ross House has recently been redone and is filled with exhibits that interpret her life and craft. Three blocks away is Christ Church Burial Ground, the final resting place of Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is a Philly ritual to toss a penny on his grave, a feat you can accomplish whether the gates are open or not.
The first museum built to preserve and promulgate the history of African Americans is situated on the corner of 7th and Arch. The African American Museum mounts both temporary and permanent exhibits. www.aampmuseum.org
Mother Bethel AME Church is located south of Market at 6th and Pine on the oldest continuously African American owned property in the country. Reverend Richard Allen founded the church in 1787 after he and his congregation departed St. George’s church because of segregation. This is the fourth building, the first being an abandoned blacksmith’s shop, on the site. A museum on the lower level is filed with rare artifacts and Allen’s personal items. Allen and his wife are in a basement crypt.
South Street is probably the most recognized street name in the city and no trip is complete without a ride from Broad to Head House Square. This is our trendiest street with restaurants, boutiques and one-of-a-kind stores. www.southstreet.com
Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s, 1.2-mile length and 250-ft. width, is most beautiful at night. Two French architects began it in 1917. Along its length are the imposing Free Library, the Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors and the Rodin Museum, housing the largest collection of the sculpture’s works outside of France.
Anchoring the Parkway are Eakins Oval and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The architect of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the African American, Julian Francis Abele. A marker on site details his achievement. The 1928 neoclassical building is made of Minnesota dolomite and replicates a Greek temple. This site is definitely a must stop. In daylight or darkness visitors must run up “Rocky’s” steps.
From here you should take the West River Drive for outstanding views of the Greek Revival Waterworks and Boathouse Row. At the second light you turn left into the 8,900-acre Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped inner-cit park in the nation. Follow the road as it bends around and on your left will be Belmont Mansion, now the home of the Underground Railroad Museum and on your right will be Belmont Plateau. The Plateau provides the best view of the city and Kristy and Sharon were delighted, especially when I pointed out that it is mentioned in Will Smith’s “Summertime.”
I ended our tour with, what else, a cheese steak from my favorite place, Larry’s, located on 54th Street just off City Line on the campus of St. Joe’s.
In spite of the snow and cold weather Kristy and Sharon had an adventure. It was dark, it was cold, it was excellent. It only goes to prove that Philly is fun anytime. www.visitphilly.com
I wish you smooth and excellent travels!