Philadelphia's offbeat attractions include old prison


August 21, 1994|By Ed Condran | Ed Condran,Special to The Sun

Philadelphia is known for its wealth of history. The City of Brotherly Love possesses the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House. However, Philly also boasts a number of wonderfully offbeat and underrated attractions.

Philadelphia is the home of Eastern State Penitentiary. The historic structure, which bid farewell to its last prisoners in 1970, was the largest and reportedly most expensive building of its time. Eastern State was designed in 1821 and was part of a reform movement which provided humane living conditions for convicts. Before the penitentiary was built, most prisoners lived in squalor.

The star-shaped national landmark attracted many admirers. Visitors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Spain and Scotland were so enamored of the Gothic building that they replicated its design.

Architects weren't the only ones intrigued by the formidable fortress. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited America and wanted to see two sites, Niagara Falls and the "penitentiary at Philadelphia." The Englishman passed through the forbidding walls and claimed he was inspired by the experience.

There were just two successful escapes in Eastern State's storied history. It was known by some as the "Alcatraz of the East."

The prison is dirty and dilapidated but offers a fascinating look at what was considered "decent" housing for prisoners.

Tour-takers are required to wear hard hats. Flat, sturdy shoes are recommended.

The Rodin Museum, which features the largest collection of Rodin sculpture outside of Paris, is located just a few blocks from Eastern State. The four-room building boasts 124 sculptures rendered by the legendary French artist, including bronze casts of his greatest works.

The historical tribute, "The Burghers of Calais," the ode to human love, "Eternal Springtime" and "The Head of John the Baptist" are some of the compelling pieces on display.

Visitors won't want to miss the Mutter Museum either.

The gallery may seem macabre at first glance. Some of its exhibits include: 139 human skulls, skeletons of a 3-foot-6-inch dwarf and a 7-foot-6-inch giant, which is the largest human skeleton in North America. The liver that joined Siamese twins Chang and Eng, as well as a plaster cast of their torsos, is also on display. However, the museum is far from an extension of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

The institution was developed by Dr. Thomas Mutter in 1856 in an effort to promote science and secure valuable medical objects.

There's also a part of an ex-president at the museum -- a tumor, which was removed from President Grover Cleveland in 1893.

The operation was a secret. The procedure took place on a yacht off the Long Island Sound. The public was told that the president was on vacation. The country was in a financial crisis due to the inflationary Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Cleveland believed that any perceived weakness on the part of the president could have thwarted a repeal. The truth wasn't revealed until 1917, two years after Cleveland's death.

In mere minutes one can travel from the Mutter Museum to the Mummers Museum. The latter was built as a showcase for Philadelphia mummery. Mummers strut down Broad Street each New Year's Day.

The celebration may not receive as much ink as the Rose Bowl Parade or New Orleans' Mardi Gras, but Philly's Broad Street is congested on the first day of every year with mummer enthusiasts. Thousands of fans from around the world take part in the 12 hours of pageantry, which originated in Colonial days.

Performers clad in colorful, elaborate sequins and feathers entertain the crowd. There are various types of mummers. Those in the string bands and fancy brigades create the unique mummers' upbeat sound. Members of the comic division dance, prance and entertain folks with the famed mummer's "strut."

The museum is a well-maintained, airy hall that should please any mummer aficionado. As you enter the grand stairway the strains of mummers' music greet you.

There are also four floor-to-ceiling photo murals depicting Broad Street on New Year's Day and costumes that mummers have worn over the years.

The history of the mummers can be experienced courtesy of three mutascopes (old-time movie viewers) loaded with past parade footage. Next up is a showcase boasting historical parade banners and badges.

The museum is a wonderful place for children, who can play in the hall of music, which includes a collection of musical instruments. A push of the button below a glass enclosure activates the sounds of each instrument individually. Children and adults can also practice the mummer's strut.

Then you can drag your tired feet to the Shoe Museum. The collection is in a very fitting place, the Pennsylvania College of Podiatric Medicine, which is, coincidentally, located on Arch Street.

More than 700 sets of footwear are on display on the building's sixth floor.

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