Loving Philadelphia
Revolutionary Icons

There are some pictures that are so representative of the city that I’m sure they exist in thousands of places, but I needed to take these pictures for my own use (for a textbook, in fact) so one fine Friday I wandered Old City and Center City to snap a few pix of old favorites.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington Square.  The Square was the burial place for Revolutionary War POW’s who were kept in the Walnut Street jail.  As it happens, it was also the burial place for many who died during the terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793.


The Graff house, at the corner of 7th and Market, is a reproduction of the place where Thomas Jefferson was staying while he wrote the Declaration of Independence.  It doesn’t actually seem to get a whole lot of respect, possibly because it IS a reproduction in a place with so many originals.


And speaking of originals, the original Pennsylvania State House is now probably better known as…


Independence Hall.  Why, yes, it IS the birthplace of the United States of America, thank you very much.  Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted here.


And the wing that housed the Congress during Philadelphia’s time as the capital of the US (1790-1800) the momentous peaceful transfer of power of a head of state took place with the inauguration of John Adams.

Before the Revolution, though, the “founding fathers” had to meet in a private place:  the First Continental Congress met in Carpenters’ Hall, privately owned by the Carpenters’ Company.


Elizabeth Griscom Ashburn Claypoole Ross was quite involved in the revolution, even if not in actual flag-making; she became one of the last two surviving members of the Free, or Fighting, Quakers.


The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, the smallest unit of the National Park Service, is at 3rd and PIne Streets.  Here the Polish engineer who fought in the American Revolution and for Polish liberty lived in 1796.  His will stipulated that all of his American goods be used to free and educate slaves, but that was never able to be carried out due to legal complications.


Christ Church was attended by many of the leading revolutionaries.


"The Signer" wasn’t there at the time, of course.  But this statue represents that Revolutionary Spirit.  Or maybe somebody trying too hard on American Idol.


And, last but not least, our true Philadelphian, albeit born in Boston and spending large amounts of time in England and France, your dude and mine, B. Franklin, made of keys to replace the one made of pennies that collapsed.  (Kite and key, geddit?)image

There are more, but I think this post has gone on quite long enough for the moment!

Shofuso (The Japanese House, Pine Breeze Villa)

This little corner of Fairmount Park is just…magic.  I really can’t explain the effect that it has on people, except to say that the most hyper of teenagers becomes all mellow and zen and wants to live there forever.  I’ve never seen it fail.


Shofuso was built in the style of a very upper class residence in 17th century Japan.  It’s a Shoin-zukuri house, which means that the built-in desk is the center point of the home. 


But the garden is just as important as the house.  It’s really a series of gardens around the house, and it’s beautiful in every season.


There’s a tea house structure in the back, part of the house complex, made with a variety of more rustic natural materials.  In the tokonoma of the tea house on this day was a scroll whose character means, quite simply, “nothing”.


All of this was very popular with the boys, who were in the group I was accompanying. 


Of course you don’t wear your shoes in the house, and of course that means that you borrow some snazzy socks!  But out in the garden your shoes need to go on again and then you can feed the koi.


It’s an amazing treasure and is part of the Horticultural Center area, so there is a lot of beautiful area to walk in before or after your time in the house.




www.shofuso.com  Go there.

Oh, and the house waterfall murals by Hiroshi Senju are also very, very special.  But I don’t have a picture of them.

John Heinz Memorial Nature Refuge at Tinicum

That’s quite a mouthful, so I’ll just use Tinicum for short.

Today (April 3rd) was a gorgeous spring day, the first day that really felt like spring all the way through. Happily, this was also the day chosen for our field trip to Tinicum wetlands, the most urban of the National Wildlife sites in the US. http://www.fws.gov/refuge/john_heinz/

The refuge is host to many migrating birds, plus turtles, frogs, snakes, native bees, butterflies, foxes, deer, and so forth. We saw the fish jumping in Darby Creek, blue herons on the wing, hawks, ducks, and turtles, but no mammals except us and the other visitors there, many of them photographers intent on capturing the views of that multitude of birds.

It’s a place of rare peace, bordered by Philadelphia International Airport on one end and oil refineries to the side. There are tidal and non-tidal wetlands, fields, and forest; five distinct habitats in all. At this time of year and with our very cool spring so far, the leaves are not showing, but there was some green on the ground. The dried grasses and reeds and the intricate skeletons of the trees were beautiful in the sunlight, though, and actually made the bird-watching a bit easier.

There are trails to follow and an impoundment that shimmers as you cross its bridge, a wide boardwalk with a central area to stop and view all the life on the water. Trails lead into the woods, as well, and there are observation platforms and towers. You could wander for a long time, and indeed it was difficult getting the students to leave!

The environmental experience starts in the parking lot, created to be porous to prevent runoff, and then the Education Center, built to fit the landscape over a rain pond and made of environmentally friendly materials, with solar and geothermal power use. There is an exhibit area there which explains a lot, and you can get maps and guides there as well. They have binoculars, field guides, nets, and so forth on loan for educational groups; the binoculars were a definite plus! Some of the kids had their own, but most used the center’s and happily spotted birds, turtles, and each other.

There’s an interesting story behind the center: Antonio Cusano, a single factory worker from the area of Tinicum, amassed a 2.5 million dollar fortune (stocks) that he left to the federal government, due to his love of country and nature. He wanted it used to help children learn about nature, and these funds were matched (by private donors) so that the award-winning education center could be built. Thank you, Mr. Cusano!

I recommend it! It’s free, and there’s plenty of parking in that porous lot, or you can get to it from the Eastwick station of the Regional Rail Line.

Spring: It’s Come Every Year, so far…

It’s been a long winter…and it’s only February now.  We can have snow up until April, actually.

But spring makes it all worthwhile; just look:

I think it will be here soon—but for a preview, the Flower Show starts on March 1st at the Convention Center!

Barnes and Eastern State Penitentiary: From the crime to the prison?

Okay, I’m a philistine when it comes to art; I knows what I likes, and that’s about it. So I won’t be approaching this topic with, perhaps, the respect and awe that it deserves, but I thought some of the info might come in handy for visitors to this part of the city.

A number of Septa buses go quite near the Barnes. I chose the 48, and the reassuring presence of lots of people who wouldn’t normally be riding the bus let me know I had the right direction. (Hey, I’ve only been riding the buses 42 years; I can get mixed up.) It’s a few minutes ride from Chinatown, and drops you off across the Parkway right outside of the Rodin Museum.

The Rodin is one of my favorite spots in the city, a tiny jewelbox with many of its gems outside: the Thinker, the Gates of Hell, the Burghers of Calais (newly cleaned and protected and returned to its outdoor spot.)


Inside is certainly worth a visit, but this day I had a scheduled time—you need to make your reservations at the Barnes in advance—so I just enjoyed the gardens for a bit and then continued on to the big Barnes barn.

imageThe entrance to the Barnes is from the 20th street direction; it’s not terribly obvious when you’re approaching on foot from the other way, so I include that helpful hint: you’ll see a gate set up that looks vaguely Disney-esque, and it’s up the slope from there. The building itself I found to be more attractive from closer range; from a distance, it’s just one of those boxy structures that make me long for the Gilded Age (in an architectural sense, of course.) But the variety of textures and the reflecting pools give a softening sense of movement to the static building, and of course its inside is a marvel of new technology and an old setting—that of Dr. Barnes in his Merion home.


I’m not going to wade too deeply into the controversy of the movement of the collection and whether it is, in fact, a “crime”; that’s been done pretty much ad infinitum, and I just really don’t feel knowledgeable enough to give a definitive opinion. I will say, however, that, while I did have visiting the Merion location on a list of things that I wanted to do, it was quite difficult to arrange the proper sequence of public transportation and timed ticket for a time when I would be off work; I tend not to schedule things too far in advance when it comes to my city/suburb visits, as there are so many variables in my life and professions, so Barnes in Merion was not really accessible for me.

After checking my jacket (and Wawa hoagie; I was too tightly scheduled to stop for a leisurely lunch) I made my way up to the galleries. They obligingly let me in a half hour earlier than the time on my ticket (it was a Wednesday morning and I was visiting alone, so a better chance for that than, say, for a group of four on a Saturday) and advised me to start on the second floor, where it was less crowded.

Dr. Albert Barnes, of course, is known for his ideas about grouping art. (My irreverent self has to say here that on first seeing these “groupings” my thoughts flew to the utter ghastliness of a home party scheme known as Home Interiors, which promotes (promoted?) its “groupings” of hideous pictures, sconces, and artificial flowers in an effort to sell you the whole deal for instant decorating, only duplicable by, well, everybody. The Barnes groupings are, to be sure, unable to be duplicated, but he did have some ideas in common with the Home Interiors people. Random metal, anyone?) Don’t get me wrong, I do like the accessibility and the amazing variety of the collection, and the vision that saw these paintings and objects in a related way; it’s unique and interesting and quite compelling. Although, to be frank, yes, you can have too many mediocre Renoirs. It’s like Thomas Kinkade overdose, if Kinkade had actually been an artist. It was a pleasure to finally come to a random Monet and rest my senses.

I also liked the whimsical touch of the included “Egyptian” drawing by nine-year-old Leona Glackens, daughter of Barnes’s major collector and included painter, William Glackens. It’s given no more and no less attention than the other works, simply a sign and a notation in the gallery guide. I used the gallery guides, found in the bench backs, rather than the audio tour; I have strange objections to anyone talking inside my ears, although I do understand that the tour is quite good. The pamphlet guides worked well for me, although some of them need to be replaced. I also loved the furniture collection that is part of the placement, and the extremely well-done lighting that makes viewing all of this a pleasure. One does have to be careful to stay behind the lines on the floor, but on the weekday morning that was not usually difficult. I sometimes had rooms almost to myself, although others were fairly full. (On another not particularly cultured note, I do wonder about the air circulation: let’s just say that some odors seemed to linger quite a while after particular visitors had left the room.)

You could definitely visit and revisit the Barnes and still not see everything, but I began to glaze over after a few hours and took myself off up 21st street to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. It was quite a lovely little stroll of a little over 1/2 mile up to Fairmount Avenue.


On to Eastern State Penitentiary:

Up the hill to the looming walls of the “hub and spoke” prison. It’s meant to be intimidating, and even now has an almost tangible feeling of sorrow. Closed and left to the elements from 1971 to 1994, it’s a decaying masterpiece of good intentions gone wrong: the “Penitentiary” part is because it was designed for solitary confinement, so that inmates could become penitent with all the time for reflection and communion. It seems, though, that this closed in silence tended to promote mental health issues, instead, and a sincere desire to escape: Willie Sutton and others managed to tunnel out, and the remains of 30 other tunnels were found after the prison closed.

The prison has been left mostly in its decayed state, with the toilets (flush toilets before the White House had them!) and cots intact in the cells, but trees growing in them sometimes, and rust and crumbled walls everywhere. Very atmospheric, and in this case the audio tour (narrated mostly by Steve Buscemi, and very well done) was not too much of a sensory overload as there is so much space and so much sameness in the high arched ceilings and small cold cells.


There are some exceptions, like Al Capone’s recreated cell with its luxuries, and the fairly newly renovated prison synagogue, originally built in 1924. There are also art installations, including a knitted collection of cell furniture (you kinda have to see it.) The installations are an interesting use of the space, and the prison itself, of course, lends itself to film-making and photographers.


When I was there, there was a “pop-up” museum that featured some of the things made by prisoners to while away the time, including a pretty ferocious collection of shivs. It’s down now, but they do have varying exhibits and occasions through the year, like the Bastille Day Tastykake event and the haunted Hallowe’en tours. I was glad to visit it on a more contemplative day, though, and found it to be a most thought-provoking and oddly beautiful site. http://www.easternstate.org/home


Here and There: rounding up a few places

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I’ve been keeping busy, visiting places that are new or new to me.  (Hey, I’ve only lived here for 47 years!)

First on the list is the Philadelphia Museum of History at the Atwater Kent, recently re-opened after extensive renovation.   It’s not huge, and its 7th street location would be easy to overlook, but I rather love it.  The artifacts are displayed in groupings of similar/connected-in-some-way objects rather than chronologically; there’s always more to discover on each visit.  The downstairs room, perfect for meetings and school field trips and such, features a floor-size map of Philadelphia.  Another of the downstairs rooms is a timeline of sorts, whilst a third houses changing exhibits.  But it is the upstairs that really shines, with everything from a Mason-Dixon mile marker to a Mummer’s hat, from George Washington’s desk to a fish store sign.  The i-Pads mounted near the displays are a wonderful way to get the full story.  There’s also a portrait gallery (original paintings) with an eclectic mix of the famous and infamous from Philadelphia’s history, and two smaller rooms with special interest features. 


Next is the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall.  It’s a chronological view with tragedy, comedy, and everyday life (plus a wonderful Purim room and other similar touches) that could take a long time to fully navigate but is able to be seen reasonably in a couple of hours or so.

Fall Hiking in Fairmount Park, the largest urban park*

This was originally written on November 4th, 2011.  This year, on November 4th, we had the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and freezing temperatures.  But this was a great memory and I’m glad last November was so lovely.

Today was a little piece of autumn heaven here, and it happened to be the day for our bi-annual park trip with all of the students in grades 7-12. We like to get them out for the incredible blend of nature and history, plus it does us all good to do a good few hours of walking once in a while.

The Fairmount Park system has 9,200 acres and consists of 63 parks in the city; the Wissahickon portion is about half of that, and it was there and along the River Drives that we concentrated today. (*It depends on who’s counting and what you count for it to be the largest, hence the asterisk.)

Much of our exploration was in the Wissahickon Valley, named for a combination of the Lenape words for “catfish stream” and “yellowish water”. We saw the yellowish stone, too: the Wissahickon schist found only here that is used for many of the houses in the area.

The first stop was the small but lovely Saylor Grove Stormwater Wetland, which treats the stormwater runoff in the natural wetlands process before it goes into the Monoshone Creek, a tributary of the Wissahickon which provides drinking water for Philadelphia. As the role of wetlands has become more appreciated, there have been attempts to re-create them, and this is one of those recreations.

Right across the street (now there’s an urban skill!) is the cluster of buildings known as Rittenhouse Town, the site of the first paper mill in the New World. Here in 1702 William Rittenhouse started the mill, using flax grown in nearby Germantown to make paper which was then sold for the Bibles and newspapers of colonial America.

Our hike along the trail toward Mom Rinker’s Rock took us under the Walnut Lane Bridge; we couldn’t see the Toleration Quaker statue on the rock due to the trees in the way, but it was a gorgeous walk for all that. You can ascend Mom Rinker’s rock for an overlook view via a rather steep and precipitous path, but we left that for another day with a lot fewer people and more time, as we had more stops to make.

In the colonial era, what is now Fairmount Park was far removed from the city, and many wealthy Philadelphians built summer homes as a retreat here, often overlooking the Schuylkill River. We visited a few of them for photo ops and views of classic Georgian or Federalist architecture, both noted for attention to symmetry.

Woodford was the summer home of William Coleman, a friend of Benjamin Franklin. It was built in 1756. A later owner had all of the doors painted to look like (very expensive) mahogany wood. It’s got an orchard, and inside there’s a great antiques collection. Being a bit muddy from the hiking, we didn’t go in, but did do a full circuit of the grounds.

Laurel Hill was built for a young widow, Rebecca Rawle, in 1764. She later married Samuel Shoemaker, who became mayor of Philadelphia just before the Revolution. The original house was just the center part, which is symmetrically Georgian; the other parts were added later. The Shoemakers were Loyalists and lost the property to the State legislature during the Revolution, but later regained it.

Mt. Pleasant also has Revolutionary ties. Originally built by sea captain/privateer John McPherson to show his ability to fit into Philadelphia’s society, it later became the property of Benedict Arnold, who had married Peggy Shippen, from a prominent Philadelphia family. Unfortunately, the Arnolds never took possession of the house, as a certain act of treason intervened. Mt. Pleasant is considered to be one of America’s great architectural gems. At one time it was a dairy, serving milk and ice cream to Philadelphia children.

We settled in for lunch along the Schuylkill; there’s a great cafe there, at the end of Boathouse Row; the Azalea Garden and benches for eating our packed hoagies for those who didn’t go to the cafe; and blue herons, Canadian geese, and various other fauna to keep things interesting while we ate. This was followed by the classic photo op for the senior class: the steps of the Art Museum. Yes, we did have a whole slew of kids running up the steps a la Rocky; no, I didn’t. (Have done, but not with camera in hand and not whilst riding herd on teenagers.) The views of the city down the Parkway are wonderful.

Next we journeyed along Martin Luther King Jr. (formerly West River) Drive.
We stopped at the Civil War monument, the Smith Memorial, one of those elaborate wedding-cake styles which were so popular at the turn of the last century. It’s right in front of the Memorial Hall left from the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a world’s fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The monument includes a statue of Richard Smith, who was never in the war…but who gave $500,000 for the memorial to be built. The “Whispering Benches” at the base have an odd acoustical quirk: if you sit at one end and whisper into the wall, a person at the opposite end can clearly hear what is said.

Back to school by 2:25; I think we may have had some kids who went home and took naps today!

North Philly

The setting sun illuminates
Old churches, telephone wires, and the bus.
It’s an October day in my neighborhood,
Fresh and cool and glowing.
Dudes on motorcycles are popping wheelies
While a cloying sweet scent
Passes by my nose, and fades.

I pass the loving paint work on 19th century houses,
Now incandescent blue and yellow.

I love you, my neighborhood.
Te amo, mi barrio.
My neighbors nod and smile.

I cross the street and see my home lights
Glowing their electric candle glow in the windows.
And I realize, with such intensity,
I am so blessed.
I am so blessed.
A Visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum…

of Archaeology and Anthropology. (The name doesn’t even fit in the title and this is the last time I’ll put the whole thing in this trip report!) This is just a brief report, but as it’s one of my favorite places in Philadelphia, I decided to share a word picture:

It was one of those beautiful crystalline fall days when I took two classes to visit the University Museum. My class of juniors are mentors to the fifth grade, and I was acting as guide for all of them: thirty students all told, nine year olds mixed with sixteen year olds.

The museum opens at 10, and we arrived and parked in the lot in back of the group entrance. That entrance leads you into the education area, but today we didn’t use the services of the docent guides, but did instead our own tour. (*ahem* Since somebody has been coming here since she was in fifth grade herself, there was no shortage of information.)

The totem poles at this entrance drew the attention of the students, but we soon marched into the “Lower Egypt” room, where the sphinx dominates the pillars and columns of Pharaoh Merenptah’s palace. We found cartouches in the hieroglyphs and symbols galore, and then made a little detour into the small but stunning room of Islamic art on the same floor. The mosaic process certainly caught the attention of the younger students, and we’ll be working that into a project sometime in the near future.

Through the doorway and up the stairs to “Upper Egypt”, where we first visited the replica Rosetta Stone. Whilst most of the artifacts are authentic, I’m glad they have this copy of the beginning of Egyptology. The sarcophagi, huge heads of Rameses II, representations of Aken-aten (the monotheist pharaoh), and the squished stone enemy whose back served for the door-turning pole all excited interest, but of course the mummy display attracted the most attention.

After lunch under the huge textile map of the world (a hidden treasure if you don’t go to the lunchroom!) we retraced our steps and went through Egypt into the Chinese rotunda. The prize piece there is the Dowager Empress Cu-xi’s solid crystal ball on its wave base; it was once stolen from the museum, and eventually recovered through a series of rather odd events. The room itself is gorgeous, with its ninety foot dome and teal silk wall insets glowing, but the crystal ball and its story have pride of place.

From there, the next stop was the prized possessions of the Iraq/Mesopotamia exhibit, including Lady Pu-Abi’s gold headdress from some 4,000plus years ago; the lapis lazuli and gold bull-headed lyre; the “ram in the thicket”; and the seemingly insignificant but overwhelmingly important cuneiform tablets.

There is a somber and touching 9/11 fragments memorial exhibit just past Iraq; it was poignant to hear the questions of the children who were not even alive when this happened. The older ones, of course, remember it vividly.

Our final stop was the Canaan/Israel gallery, with its unique sarcophagus, trade routes map (Phoniecians and their murex!), and touchable artifacts. We could have stayed even longer, and we did pay a visit to the replica of Hammurabi’s laws down on the stairway, but we had to hurry to our souvenir stop at the children’s Pyramid Shop and then to some class pictures outside.

There’s a lot more to explore in the museum, and I’m hoping that some of the children who came with me will one day be bringing their own children—or students!—to visit the museum for the 15th (or so) time. http://www.penn.museum/about-us.html

Fourth of July in Lawncrest

I grew up in Lawncrest.  In fact, I spent the first forty years of my life there in the house where I was born.  A tiny enclave between the neighborhoods of Lawndale to the north and Crescentville to the south (hmmm, wonder where it got its name?) anchored by the Lawncrest Recreation Center and Library and bisected by Rising Sun Avenue, it was an Irish Catholic/German Protestant neighborhood with the church of St. William (not St. William’s; thank you, Msgr. Mortimer) and Furlow’s 5&10 as neighborhood institutions.  It’s a rowhouse neighborhood, and during my youth it was pretty much a Wonder Bread enclave straight out of the legends of the 50’s…and I grew up during the 70’s.

The big celebration, the raison d’etre, the culmination of committees and canvassing and contributions was always the 4th of July celebration.  The morning parade went down Bingham Street; we’d race through the driveways behind the Van Kirk street houses to our viewing spot, the one where the slobbery friendly St. Bernard lived, and sit on the curb to watch the veterans’ groups and Mummers and local celebrities (even the mayor, sometimes) and occasional Shriners and school marching bands and kids on decorated bikes, and then we’d race back up to Rising Sun Avenue and Van Kirk to watch it all over again.  You’d always meet up with neighbors, of course, but there were also the people your parents knew who’d come back for the parade and you’d wait there in the sun and humidity while they talked and talked and talked and finally you got back home to breakfast, but then ran back out to go to the Rec, ‘cause there were carnival rides (big sis and cousin had a crush on one of the carnies, but not me, nossir) and funnel cake and, eventually, a flea market.  Plus the string bands that Pop loved and always a minor music celebrity and even our resident Lawncrest celeb, Andrea MacArdle, incognito and just one of the Lawncrest folks.  The Little League would play, there would be ceremonies, water ice and stuffed toys and net-frocked dolls were sold with abandon, sunburn would happen, and then we’d go home for lunch.

After the hot dogs and hamburgers and deviled eggs, there was the afternoon baby parade.  The floats, the youngest baby, the too-cute-for-words, all would go down Rising Sun to the judging at the Rec.  Grandmom would always be at this one, even though in retrospect you don’t really see her as a baby type person; too unbending.  But she did love being with her daughter (Mom) and she’d spend the day before chopping the pickles for the potato salad and the celery for the macaroni salad into perfect miniature pieces and getting all of the mayonnaise out of the Hellman’s jar until it looked clean.  (I still can’t do that.)

Then it was back to the Rec, and back and forth to home (Malta Street:  single block between Van Kirk and Comly, just a short walk away) and perhaps Uncle Rich’s home-made ice cream until finally, finally it was time for the biggest deal of the day:  the fireworks. 

Ooooooooooo.   Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh.

This past Wednesday morning I was back for the parade.  Now it’s only on Rising Sun Avenue, and there’s been some changes made:  the Irish dancers no longer jig and reel up the street (I was always rather morbidly fascinated by the possibility of one of them passing out; they always looked hot), the Shriners don’t drive their motorcycles and tiny cars here, St. William just graduated its last eighth grade, and the Mummers have gone, but there’s still that sense of community, still a tear in the eye when the veterans come past—now including a contingent of Khmer fighters—still candy being tossed into the street to be scooped up by the little kids, still flags to wave when you contribute to the fireworks.  I sat on the curb again and listened to the familiar sounds, watched the antique cars go by, saw the multi-hued faces of the marchers (no longer just sunburned Caucasian), and waved my little fireworks flag to beat the band.