Monday, 8 August 2016


Penn's Landing and the Benjamin Franklyn bridge

We are in Pennsylvania visiting a friend who is recovering from a car accident, but I have been given a pass to catch the train into Philadelphia. It seems right to start my exploration at Penn's Landing, on the Delaware river, where William Penn came ashore in 1682. The Landing now is strangely separated from the rest of the city - you can only reach by a bridge across a massive interstate highway - and quite commercialised too. It was quiet on a Monday morning however,and I enjoyed this view of the wonderful Ben Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River with the Gazela in the foreground.

I didn't stay long but instead headed to Welcome Park on Second Street. The key thing to understand about Philadelphia's geography is that numbered streets run parallel to the river with the numbers increasing the further you get away, while named ones run at right angles. If you keep this in mind it's hard to get really lost.

Welcome was the name of the ship which brought Penn to America and Penn lived here from 1699-1701. In the centre of the square is a replica of the statue of Penn which adorns the spire of City Hall (of which more later). 

I turned right into Walnut and at the intersection with Third St found the wonderful Merchants' Exchange of 1832-4, the oldest stock exchange in America. It is a beautiful neo-classical structure.

Just behind it, in Third St is the First Bank of the United States (1795-7), the oldest bank building in the country and apparently an example of Federal style architecture. Must find out more about this.

Back in Walnut, there is the Todd House (1775) on the corner with 4th St and back along the street a pleasant terrace of town houses.

Just round the corner is the wonderful Carpenters' Hall (1770-73). Although built as a Guildhall for the Carpenters' Company it was the scene of much independence-related activity in 1774.

I was pleased with my picture but when I arrived a crew of workers were doing some work on the area in front of the building on the right (the New Hall of 1790). They most courteously explained they wouldn't be long and quickly cleared away all their stuff and hid round the corner while I took my picture. How wonderful!

Exiting into Chestnut,  short way north is the Second Bank of the United States, a Greek revival building of 1819-24, now an art gallery.

Round the next corner in Fifth St is the Philosophical Hall (1785-9), headquarters of the American Philosophical Society.

More or less opposite is Library Hall a 20th century reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin's Library Company of Philadelphia, the oldest subscription library in the US. It is now the library of the Philosophical Society.

Doubling back to tune left back into Fifth Street you reach Philadelphia's greatest sight: Independence Hall, where as my guide book says "the United States was born". It was built in 1732-56 as the State House of the province of Pennsylvania, but became the meeting place of the Second Continental Congress of 1775-83 and the place where independence was proclaimed.

The building itself is in the Palladian style with a central structure and two pavilions connected by arcades. Out of sight to the right is Congress Hall where the newly formed US Congress met between 1790 and 1800 (it is currently undergoing restoration).

Opposite (entrance on Sixth St) is the Liberty Bell Centre. The Liberty Bell was cast in England in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania's Charter. It was allegedly rung in 1776 to summon Philadelphians to hear the Declaration of Independence. The new building which houses it is massive and is presumably mainly a mechanism to allow people to queue under shelter. The end where the Bell is is quite pleasing, with a lovely flower garden outside.

I now headed down to Third Street to switch into a second walk from my guidebook. I rather liked this 19th century building on Third St opposite the Norwegian Seamen's Church. I felt it was a shame that it is about to be demolished.

Crossing Market, a right turn brought me to the 18th century Christ Church, a very beautiful English looking church in the Georgian style. Many, if not most, of the key movers in Independence worshipped here.

Leaving along Second St, I reached Arch and noticed this lovely group of iron-framed buildings on the right. I was pleased with my observation, but they were in fact in the guide book.

Furter along on the right is Elfreth's Alley, famous for being the oldest continuously occupied street in the US (it goes back to 1713). It really is very charming, although the surrounding neighbourhood is quite run down.

The next crossing road is Race, where this 19th century house has beautiful linenfold carving on its front door.

Returning the Arch, along on the right is the Betsy Ross House (1740). Betsy allegedly sewed the original Stars and Stripes, although she may have lived next door rather than in this house.

Further along Arch at 131 is the splendid former Hoopskirt Factory (at last something not in the guide book!).

Almost opposite is the Arch St (Quaker) Meeting House, constructed in 1804. It is the largest in the world.

I rather ran out of steam at this point and passed by the Christ Church Burial Ground (wher e five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Ben Franklin, are buried) and the Free Quaker Meeting House (1783) to head back to the subway and get a train to City Hall.

City Hall was designed by a Scottish-born architect, John McArthur Jr, in the Second Empire style and constructed between 1871 and 1901. At 548 ft (167 m), including the statue of city founder William Penn on top of the tower, it was the tallest habitable building in the world from 1894 to 1908.

For many years Philadelphia had an understanding that no building could be taller than William Penn's hat. This was ended in 1987 and a subsequent period of lack of success for Philly's sports teams was apparently blamed on Billy Penn's resulting curse. I am not making this up - you can read about it on Wikipedia.

A number of skyscrapers have been built since and I rather liked this one, glimpsed from in front of City Hall, which seems to imitate in glass the Chrysler Building in New York. It is One Liberty Place at 1650 Market Street. It is the second-tallest skyscraper in the city and state and the 20th-tallest building in the country (Wikipedia). Liberty Place (there is also a smaller Two Liberty Place) was designed by architect Helmut Jahn and his firm Murphy/Jahn and was the first building to break the tradition described above.

It remained only to walk to Suburban station and get the train back to Bryn Mawr.

Conditions: warm but rather grey.

Distance: about 4 miles.

Rating: 5 stars. A great City walk which really got me interested in understanding the War of Independence and its antecedents.

Guide book: The Philadelphia Inquirer's Walking tours of Historic Philadelphia. An excellent companion, although it could have done with an overview map showing how the various walks relate to each other.

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