Sunday, February 19, 2012

Historic Philadelphia: Retracing the Footsteps of our Country's Parents

Christ Church
Growing up a short schoolbus ride from Philadelphia, we visited the important historical sites to reinforce the American history we learned in school. It was fourth grade if I'm not mistaken, that we took a class trip to the city to visit Independence Hall, Elfreth's Alley, and the Betsy Ross House. We saw the Liberty Bell, too, and we were even allowed to put our little-kid fingers into the famous crack. These days there's no touching the Bell, as I suppose we are more aware of how the oils and God-knows-what left behind by our fingers damage the relic. The Bell is in its second new home since I touched it many moons ago, but the rest of the sites have remained the same. The historic area and Old City are delightful, at the same time park-like and populated.

That's Independence Hall on the left, and the Liberty Bell's building to the right. Check out the line to see the Bell!

Elfreth's Alley
Elfreth's Alley best illustrates my point. I remember visiting this little in fourth grade, and the teachers explained that it is the longest continuously inhabited residential street in the country. That is to say that the buildings date back to the 1730s, but older homes now gone were built in 1713. There are a total of 33 homes there now, and aside from the museum and gift shop occupying two, they are lived-in. Imagine living in one of those old houses with throngs of tourists walking up and down the cobblestone street which is probably too narrow for even the smallest car. (How do you unload your groceries? How do you get furniture delivered? Do you have to wear a costume when you go outside?) This is living history, isn't it? It's easy to imagine what this street was like when the country was born because it is essentially the same now. Elfreth's Alley is between Arch and Race Streets, connecting 2nd to Front Street.

Organ Pipes and 1740 Chandelier of Christ Church
I don't remember visiting Christ Church in fourth grade, so I made a special point of visiting it on my recent Old City photo tour. This church, at 2nd and Market Streets, is where George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Rush and other big names of the time worshiped. It's a beautifully preserved Georgian building and open every day with historians on-hand to answer questions. It was started in 1727, and the famous white steeple made the church the tallest building in the colonies for decades. Benjamin Franklin actually led the fundraising to build the steeple! The baptismal font dates from 14th-century London, and it the very one in which a baby William Penn was baptized in London. The Christ Church burial Ground is a couple blocks away at 5th and Arch Streets--its most famous resident is Benjamin Franklin.

The Betsy Ross House
The Betsy Ross House is in this Old City neighborhood, too, at 239 Arch Street. Ms. Ross was an upholsterer who also made flags, and her husband's uncle George Ross, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, hooked her up with the famous flagmaking gig we've all heard about. Historians aren't entirely sure she made THE first flag, or that she lived in this very house, but even the spurious parts of her tale are not unlikely. The thrice-widowed Betsy is buried in the adjacent Atwater Kent Park with her third husband John Claypoole.

The brightest star of a visitor's tour of Philadelphia would have to be Independence Hall on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. It was built between 1732 and 1756 and intended to be the State House of the Province of Pennsylvania. This is where the colonial delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the federal Constitution. Did you know Abraham Lincoln lied here in state after his 1865 assassination? Tours are available every day, but they are very popular (VERY popular) and must be picked up at the spiffy Visitor Center between Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. The Liberty Bell Center is there, too, and the modern National Constitution Center. Connecting these buildings is an expansive lawn, necessary to accommodate the energetic kids, photo-snappers, dog walkers, and everyone drawn to this historic place. The clock tower looks shiny and new after its recent makeover, doesn't it? On the day this photo was taken, the National Park Service was preparing for an event to celebrate the unveiling of the recently restored tower--that's the yellowish green bit in the center of the photo.

Independence Hall

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