Walk at liberty through Philadelphia history

By Aubin Tyler
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — If you’ve ever had a yen to visit this historic city, now’s the time. Next Sunday Southwest Airlines starts flying from Logan to Philadelphia, with five nonstop flights daily. On July 21, Megabus starts running three daily departures from South Station. Both Amtrak’s Acela Express and Northeast Regional services run multiple times daily, getting here in five or six hours.

Philadelphia’s Old City is a walker’s delight; at its center is Independence National Historical Park, a verdant urban space offering 22 historic and new sites dedicated to the revolutionary era — most of them free. Here’s a sampling:

The Pennsylvania State House was the largest building in the Colonies when it was completed in 1753. In 1775, Pennsylvania invited the Second Continental Congress to meet in its assembly hall, where delegates voted to declare independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. After the Revolutionary War, the Constitution was deliberated and adopted here. The building then became known as Independence Hall.

After 200 years and multiple restorations, in 1950 the National Park Service restored the structure to its 1776 appearance, said Frank Eidmann Jr., special events coordinator for the park service. This summer, restoration work on the tower and cupola will begin after July 4.

Of the 4 million yearly visitors to the park, between Memorial Day and Labor Day some 11,000 to 18,000 visitors a day (about 80 people every 15 minutes) come through Independence Hall. No tickets are required on July 4. The rest of the year, free tickets must be obtained in advance at the park visitors center at Sixth and Market streets. For a service charge of $1.50 each, you can reserve online (go to and click “tours’’). Independence Square, Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets,

“Within the last 10 years, there’s been a $300 million renovation of the mall, including three new buildings, the visitors center, National Constitution Center, and the Liberty Bell Center,’’ Eidmann said. In 2003, the Liberty Bell Center opened as the permanent home of the 2,000-pound bell.

In 1751, the speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the bell from the White Chapel Foundry in London, asking that it be inscribed with a verse from Leviticus in the Bible: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’’ The inscription probably referred to the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania founder William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, which proclaimed religious liberty, Eidmann said.

The State House Bell, as it was called before the Revolutionary War, cracked some time after it was delivered to Philadelphia in 1752. Two local metalsmiths — John Dock Pass and John Stow — agreed to recast it from the original. It took two tries. The third and final casting of the bell first rang out from the State House tower in 1753.

In 1776, the bell rang to announce the Colonies’ independence. “And in the 1830s, an abolition group was attracted to the inscription and adopted the bell as a physical symbol of human liberty,’’ Eidmann said. The bell was retired after 1846, when a new crack began to distort the sound. Independence Mall, between Fifth and Sixth streets,

The first learned society in North America was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and six associates for the purpose of “promoting useful knowledge.’’ The society’s private, independent research library holds more than 10 million manuscript items, including most of Franklin’s papers, scientific books, and journals.

On a recent visit, the lobby display included one of the four original final drafts of the Declaration of Independence, dating from June 1776. Thomas Jefferson sent this particular version to Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia statesman who first called for the Colonies to break free of Britain.

The library also holds 700 original letters of Charles Darwin and five surviving pages of the draft of his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species.’’ It also has the original 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition journals. “Jefferson had them and gave them to us,’’ noted Charles Greifenstein, the society’s manuscripts librarian. President Jefferson appointed his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead the famous expedition across the newly purchased Louisiana Territory to the Pacific; Lewis’s friend William Clark accompanied him. Fifth Street between Chestnut and Walnut streets,

For the last decade of the 18th century, Philadelphia served as the temporary center of government while a new Capitol was built on the shores of the Potomac River. To house the country’s first president, the city rented an elegant three-story brick house at the corner of Sixth and Market streets from financier Robert Morris. President Washington lived and worked in the house from 1790 to 1797; President John Adams occupied it from 1797 to 1800. That house was torn down in 1832, but the park service excavated the site down to its foundation during the construction of the adjacent Liberty Bell Center.

Nine slaves came with the Washingtons from Mount Vernon, including the family chef Hercules, and Oney Judge, a young seamstress and Martha Washington’s personal servant. Both later escaped.

An exhibit to commemorate the President’s House and the enslaved Africans who lived and worked there is scheduled to open in the fall. Independence Mall between Fifth and Sixth streets,

Christ Church, founded in 1695, offers a marvelous $2 tour of the cemetery where Franklin and his wife, Deborah, are buried, along with their daughter Sarah and her husband, Richard Bache. After the beloved scientist-statesman died in 1790, some 20,000 mourners attended his funeral. Robert Harper, burial ground guide for the church, said it earns around $4,000 a year from pennies thrown on the Franklin gravesite for luck. The money is used to preserve and maintain the grounds.

Church records indicate that 4,000 people are buried in this 2-acre plot, some in coffins piled on top of each other to a depth of 40 feet, Harper said. In 1719, the church acquired the land because there was no more room in the churchyard and nearby land was too marshy. Time and the effects of acid rain have worn away many of the headstone inscriptions, but the location of at least 1,400 of the interred are known thanks to the efforts of a church warden who started writing down many of the inscriptions during the Civil War.

Among the prominent Colonial and Revolutionary War church members buried here are the silversmith Philip Syng, who designed the silver inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence; the physician Benjamin Rush, a great friend of Adams and one of the few doctors who stayed in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793; and Commodore William Bainbridge of Boston, the captain of the USS Constitution, or “Old Ironsides.’’ Arch Street between Fourth and Fifth streets,

Aubin Tyler can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Thomas Bond House Bed & Breakfast
129 South Second St.
215- 923-8523
Beautifully restored 1769 Federal period brick row house on the edge of the park, $115-$190 with breakfast.
Best Western Independence Park Inn
235 Chestnut St.
It’s homier than you would expect from a chain. $165-$201 with breakfast.
Penn’s View Hotel
Front and Market streets
A European-style boutique inn with fireplaces and Jacuzzis in some rooms. $129-$299 with breakfast.
Where to eat
Cafe Spice
35 South Second St.
Try the tandoor-cooked baby lamb chops ($14.50) or the vegetable curry cooked in tamarind, coconut, and curry leaves ($9.95).
306 Market St.
Seasonally changing menu that might include crispy soft-shell crab starters ($16) or entrees of grilled filet mignon or ribeye with fingerling potatoes ($36). For something quick, try the rustic pizza with goat cheese and roasted peppers ($3.25) from Fork Etc., the restaurant’s takeout shop next door.
City Tavern
138 South Second St.
A tasteful National Park Service reconstruction of the 1773 structure where John Adams and George Washington dined. It boasts period fare served by waiters in Colonial dress. Try the roast duckling with clover-honey glaze ($28.95) or tavern lobster pie (market price).