December 11, 2017


by Rosemary

In some parts of South Philly, it is customary to park on the median strip. It isn't legal, but the police don't issue tickets. It can be confusing and possibly a bit dangerous. Residents argue that parking in the middle is a necessity, because there just aren't enough places to park in this city (and they have a point). Recently, an activist group sued the city in an attempt to force the police to ticket and tow these illegally parked cars, but the judge decided in the city's favor, meaning the scofflaws can stay parked.

Another oddly parked vehicle is the S.S. United States, once a luxury ocean liner, now a rotting hulk at Pier 84. Since being withdrawn from service in 1969, this ship has been bought and sold many times. No one seems to know what to do with it. There have been a number of proposals to repurpose it in various ways, including turning it into a cruise ship, a casino, a museum, or an office building, but none of these ideas have proved practical. The costs of keeping it in place (estimated at $60,000 a month) are paid for by donations to a conservancy group. When the money runs out the ship may be sold for scrap metal, or perhaps converted into an artificial reef.

In another part of the city is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose stone steps are known as the "Rocky Steps" for their role as the location of Sylvester Stallone's triumphant run in the 1976 film Rocky. We saw plenty of tourists, and a few serious runners, running ‑‑ or trying to run ‑‑ up and down these steps. Nearby is a larger-than-life Rocky statue where tourists love to pose.

This statue of Joan of Arc is eye-catching, but seems like a misfit, both in color and content, in a city filled with likenesses of local heroes. In 1890, members of the French community installed this statue by Emmanuel Frémiet, to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. The bronze statue was gilded in 1960. Joan didn't actually participate in the French Revolution, having died more than 300 years earlier, during the Hundred Years War.

Across the street from the museum is a huge, elaborate monument to George Washington, surrounded by wild animals, allegorical figures, and historical characters.

Washington and other patriots are honored throughout the city. In Washington Square, George stands over the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. The square was once a burial ground for soldiers and citizens during the Revolution and later for the victims of yellow fever epidemics. It was also used as a potter's field.

The Founding Father who is remembered most prominently is Philadelphia's most famous citizen, once the most famous American in the world, Benjamin Franklin. Some of his statues and monuments have been in place for a long time, and more continue to be created. This 2017 bronze statue by James West, in front of the Masonic Temple near City Hall, depicts Masonic brothers Washington and Franklin.

Nearby is 1981's "Benjamin Franklin, Craftsman" by Joe Brown, depicting the young Franklin working at his printing press.

James Peniston's 2007 bust of Franklin, who founded America's volunteer fire departments, stands outside the Engine 8 fire station.

Neon, of course, is timeless.

Although the Franklin family home is no longer standing, its former location is now known as Franklin Court and contains steel frame outlines of the house and Franklin's grandson's print shop. Portions of the house's foundation and basement remain and can be seen through viewing ports. In the courtyard is the entrance to a small U.S. Post Office (the only one that does not fly the U.S. flag, since it has a 1775 theme) where items are hand stamped with Benjamin Franklin's personal postmark. We mailed a postcard here, then exited Franklin Court to Market Street through the original brick passageway once used by Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin died in his house and was buried next to his wife in the historic Christ Church Burial Ground. Franklin is popularly but incorrectly credited with the saying "A penny saved is a penny earned", and thousands of visitors pay homage to him by tossing pennies onto the gravestone. Unfortunately, this practice has damaged the marble, which has also suffered a big crack as the result of time and weather. Earlier this year the crack was filled and sealed, and the base of the stone reset, at a cost of $80,000. People still toss pennies (we did not participate).

Just a few blocks away from Christ Church is Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed. We didn't get up early enough in the morning to get tickets to this very popular destination, but we enjoyed walking around the area and seeing other historic sites and attractions, including the Liberty Bell.

Our walk took us through Elfreth's Alley, a historic cobblestone street referred to as "our nation's oldest residential street," with houses built between 1720 and 1830. Unlike the mansions typically preserved and included in architectural tours, these were working-class homes. There is a museum here, but most of the houses are still private residences that look much as they would have 100-200 years ago.

For interesting architecture in a completely different style, there is nothing like a visit to City Hall. Completed in 1901, it was a record-setting structure. Although never the world's tallest building, at the time of its completion it was the tallest habitable building. It was the tallest building in Pennsylvania until 1932, and the tallest in Philadelphia until 1986. It still has the tallest statue atop a building in the world, Alexander Milne Calder's 37-foot statue of William Penn. It is the largest municipal building in the U.S., and the world's tallest load-bearing masonry structure (it has no steel or iron framing).

When it opened, it was widely criticized for its outdated architectural style and opulent decorations.

Outside the building there are, of course, many statues and memorials.

Major General John Fulton Reynolds, killed at the battle of Gettyburg.

John Wanamaker is best-known as the founder of Wanamaker's department stores, where he introduced the idea of accepting returns. The Wanamaker building is across the street from City Hall, and is now a Macy's store.

Octavius Valentine Catto, educator and civil rights activist.

Someone we all know and love.

Across the street is a sculpture entitled "Government of the People,"
by Jacques Lipchitz

High atop the tower, William Penn surveys the city.

From the observation deck, it's possible to get a closer look,
but not necessarily a better look.

The observation deck provides great views of the city, including the Benjamin Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River.

Philadelphia is a big city with a rich history, and there is much more we could have seen, including, no doubt, several hundred more statues, plaques, parks, buildings, and assorted attractions named after Ben Franklin. But it was time to move on to another phase of U.S. history.

1 comment >>

  1. I used to live in South Philly but I never got used to parking in the middle. It's a great city in many ways but the traffic will make you crazy.


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