Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The City of Brotherly Love

On Saturday, May 03, 2003 we did a reconnaissance of Philadelphia today.  Philadelphia is not Ford F350 dually truck friendly. The streets are very narrow, but most of the attractions are within walking distance from SEPTA, the regional transit authority.

Drove to Philadelphia to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an imposing edifice in Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. We arrived about the time the museum opened so we could find a parking space. There were none. We were fortunate to find one about a half-mile away on one of the side streets. The museum was holding a special exhibit entitled Degas and the Dance. You had to have a timed ticket to see the exhibit. The first ones were available at 4:30 P.M., a mere six and a half hours away. We did a pas de deux for Degas.

We started the tour of the museum at the French Impressionist exhibit, my favorite. I made an amazing discovery while viewing some landscapes by Claude Monet. I have seen many of his paintings in my lifetime. While viewing one of the landscapes, I started to sway from side to side. Voila! The painting appeared three-dimensional. It literally blew my mind. I had never noticed this before.

The museum does a lot of things right. They have an extensive collection of Marcel Duchamps, a native Philadelphian. They portray the Dada movement very well. Another highpoint of their collection is their reconstruction of different salons from Europe and the US. Finally the collection of armor and weaponry predominantly from the Holy Roman Empire, i.e. modern day Germany.

Our next stop was the Home of Edgar A. Poe. He lived in Philadelphia for six years with his wife. Here he wrote “The Black Cat” and other stories and poems. The cellar described in his short story is similar to the one in his house. The house itself is barren, with furniture and wall and floor coverings. One room in the visitor’s center is furnished as Poe described in his essay, “The Philosophy of Furniture”.

Drove the short distance to the Shrine to St. John Neumann. The church is very simple and acts as the local parish for the area.

Finally a trip to Philadelphia must include a Philly Cheesesteak from the original restaurant, Pat’s Steaks. This is located in Little Italy at the corners of 9th, Federal, and Passyunk. Pat’s Cheesesteaks live up to their reputation: Yum! Yum! Yum!

Drove to Marcus Hook to catch the R2 SEPTA train to Philadelphia. Parking is only $0.50 in their lot. The train ride to downtown Philly is $4.25 off peak hours for adults and $1.00 for Seniors (not a bad deal). SEPTA prints its own daily newspaper for the commuters. Most of the news comes from Reuters. On the 25 mile trip to the city we were passed by five Amtrak trains, including two bullet trains. They really go fast. From what we heard, this is one of the busiest corridors for Amtrak and a real money maker.

Our train makes many stops along the way. The most notable are the town of Chester, which was once a thriving port town, but now has a reputation to be avoided. We do not know if that is true. From the train both statements are plausible. The train also stops at University of Pennsylvania, a conglomerate of many other colleges too), the Amtrak station, on the West bank of the Skuykill River (Skoo-kill), the main commercial district and finally East Market Street at 11th Street, the Historic district.

Our first stop was the Visitor’s center, a new building still under construction at Market and 5th. To tour Independence Hall you need to pick up timed tickets, which are free. We knew the lines would be long, when we saw over one hundred fifth graders from Hopewell NJ, milling around on the sidewalk. Our tour was scheduled for noon. It was only 10:30. We had time to kill.

Across Market Street is housed the Liberty Bell. Security is as tight as at the Capital Building in Washington DC. I have never seen so many armed rangers. These were not the docent type, but the law enforcement ones. They meant business. They reminded me of the soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

The Liberty Bell, as is now named, started off as the town bell for the Pennsylvania Statehouse. Forged in Whitechapel, London, England, it rang gloriously for many years, even on that day in early July, 1776, when the upstart colony broke away from their sovereign King George III. For many years it rang loud and clear. One day a crack developed. This was easy one to repair (just widen it with drill holes,and install a bolt to keep it from rubbing together). Voila, it rang. On the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, the citizens wanted to peale it all day. Around noon the bell sounded funny. Another crack developed. This time it was horizontal and therefore terminal. Instead of melting it down and casting it into pots and pans, it was saved. Why? Across the top of the bell was inscribed with a verse from Leviticus, “To proclaim Liberty to every corner of the land”. This became the rally cry of the abolitionists and is even now symbolic of our nation. What was merely a town bell raised itself to a national symbol.

One block South is the Independence Square. The half hour tour of Independence Hall emphasizing two rooms: the courtroom and the Assembly room, where the Second Continental Congress met and vigorously debated the desire for independence. The room is reconstructed to reflect the physical appearance as in 1776. The only surviving piece of furniture present is the President’s chair, where a rising sun is depicted on the back. It is said that Ben Franklin frequently stared at this decoration and thought, “Is that a rising sun or a setting sun”?

To the right of Independence Hall is the Old City Hall, where the Supreme Court resided from 1791-1800. For two months the justices met. The other time they rode circuit throughout the young nation. It was a grueling life.

To the left Congress Hall stands. The US Senate and House of Representatives met there until the Capital was finished in Washington. Already the Senate Chambers were more opulent.

A suggestion for visiting Independence Square: visit late in the day for the tour of the Hall. The crowds diminish considerable after 1:00. The Old City Hall closes daily at 1:00. The Senate chambers in the Congress Hall open at 1:00. So schedule accordingly.

A short walk away is Christ Church Cemetery, where Benjamin Franklin and his wife are interred. The cemetery was closed for many years because of general deterioration. The members of Christ Church have restored it to its former glory and is once again open to the public.

Down the street is the home of Betsy Ross, a thrice widowed mother of seven, who is remembered for sewing the first stars and stripes. Her home is typical of a modest middle class artisan of the day.

Not to be missed is Elfreth’s Alley, only one block from the house. Here the cobblestone street is flanked on either side by 33 artisan houses, still occupied today. Near the East end of the alley is a small alley, named Bladen’s Court. At the end is the local water pump. One of the houses has a balcony, like in the South, where the ladies would sew on a hot summer’s day.

Next door to Elfreth’s Alley is Fireman’s Hall. Entering from the rear of the building, you walk into the world of firefighting, colonial and later styles. Lovingly put together and managed by members of the Philadelphia Fire Department, it is a tribute to The Job. Old pumpers dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hand tools used to combat the fires, and numerous artifacts depict the history of firefighting in Philadelphia. They have erected a memorial to the heroes of 9-11. One of the firemen pointed out that in three hundred years of fire service in Philadelphia, 302 men have given their lives. At the World Trade Center, more than three hundred men died in just three hours. We learned about a tradition still carried out on unsuspecting rookies.  On Saturdays, they washed the wheels of the fire trucks.  The reason is that the spokes were wooden covered by a metal rim.  If the wheels were not washed, the wood would shrink and the rim come off.  That is not a problem today.  But the honored job is still handed out.

On the way back to the train station, we stopped in at the old Quaker Meeting House. Here the Society of Friends met and still meet in the practice of religious freedom. Although pacifists, they supported the War for Independence.

We decided today that we would spend the day on Society Hill and are very pleased with our decision. First we had to visit Christ Church, where Ben Franklin and Samuel Morse (the wealthiest man in Philadelphia) attended services. The Second Continental Congress spent many days in prayer in this church during their deliberations. Some of the furnishings are original, being over two hundred fifty years old.

Society Hill reflects the atmosphere of Colonial and early nationhood. Narrow tree lined streets, hidden walkways, small parks dot the area. Walking down the streets is walking into a quieter era. We passed by The City Tavern, which was frequented my many of the delegates of the Congress. Even today lunch and dinner are served in the same rooms that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Hancock frequented. We had to stop there and sample the George Washington Porter and the Thomas Jefferson Ale, both made from their personal recipes. This was the highlight of the day, sitting in the tavern’s garden sipping the excellent brew and realizing that other great men did the same as we mere mortals.

A few blocks South of the Tavern is the boarding house of Mrs. Ann Relf. Here Thaddeus Kosciuszko (pronounced KOS-CHOOS-KO or KOS-EE-OOS-KO) lived in a small second floor room, having returned to his “second country” after being exiled from his homeland Poland. Who is he? Perhaps, only the greatest general of the Revolutionary War. As a young man of thirty, he came to Philadelphia to offer his services to the new nation. His first assignment was to build forts to protect Philadelphia. They were so formidable that the British did not attack them. He was then appointed engineer for the Northern armies. He formed the strategy and the battlements for the Battle of Saratoga, of which some regard as one of the top ten battles ever in the history of the world. The revolutionaries, having out maneuvered the superior British seasoned forces, won the attention of the French and Spanish who thereafter supported the new nation. He was then commissioned to fortify the Hudson River further downstream. He engineered the building of the Rock of Gibraltar in America at West Point, which stopped any invasion thoughts of the British of upstate New York. Had his name been Grant or Lee or Jones or Riley, he would have been known as one of the greatest generals of all time. Even General Washington had a hard time remembering his name. He once said to him, “Colonel Kosciuszko do you mind if I call you Colonel Kosci.” He was a good friend of Thomas Jefferson and spent many hours in deep discussion with each other, perhaps talking in three or four different languages during the night. Going back to Poland after the War, afire with the passion for liberty, he led the Polish peasantry against the Russian, and Austio-Hungarian Empires in revolt. And in which he was severely wounded and imprisoned. Practically paralyzed he returned to Philadelphia amid a tumultuous heroic welcome. At the age of 71 he died in Switzerland.

Old Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, like Christ Church, was where the Constitutional Convention met frequently for prayer. The two churches are completely different from each other: Christ Church is bright and airy letting the world inside, St. Mary’s is dark with many stained glass windows acting as a haven from the outside world. Both are beautiful, as well as historical. The burial grounds hold the remains of Commodore John Barry, the father of the US Navy.

Franklin Court, the place on Market Street, is where Ben Franklin lived and worked. The house does not remain, but the area has been constructed to reflect his times. Various exhibits depict his life and inventions.

At Carpenter’s Hall, the site of the First Continental Congress we met a Ranger for a tour of the Todd house and the Bishop White House (open Wed-Sat. only by guided tour with tickets from the Visitor’s Center). The Todd House is a representation of a Middle Class Residence. John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, lived there with his wife, Dolley, the future Dolley Madison, wife of the President. After John Todd died of yellow fever, Dolley wooed or was wooed by James Madison. From a prim and proper Quaker wife, she became the socialite of Washington, of whose reputation everyone is aware.

The Bishop White House, next door, is an example of a wealthy Philadelphian. Rector of both Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church he is the first Episcopalian Bishop in the United States. The house midway between the two churches has an extensive basement and wine cellar. His life style is very different from the conservative Quakers.

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