Lighting Liberty's Way

Philadelphia: Ben Franklin's town does itself and its history a great service through exhibits old-fashioned and newfangled

August 01, 1999|By Jeff Miller | By Jeff Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In America's current political climate, where few trust our elected officials, Ben Franklin's humorous words are like a breath of cool mountain air on a sultry summer night. Living in Philadelphia, where America's political system was born, Franklin poured forth such wit and wisdom from a mental stream that never seemed to run dry.

For those who want to learn more about our political system and this noble statesman -- whose vibrant life would never have survived today's media scrutiny -- Philadelphia is a must. This self-guided walking tour -- where all eight suggested stops are free -- takes only a pair of comfortable shoes. In return, visitors will not only get a glimpse of Franklin's genius and his city but also discover America's political roots.

Many of the sights are in or near the one-square-mile Independence National Historic Park. This historic area has seldom looked better. Leafy green canopies shade spotlessly clean cobbled streets and wide pathways. Revolutionary War buildings of red brick with cream-colored moldings look freshly renovated.

Franklin probably wouldn't recognize it. His Philadelphia was loud, raucous and dirty. Horses and carriages clogged the streets. People kept cows, pigs and chickens in the gardens of their downtown rowhouses, and there was a constant parade of farm animals being pulled and dragged to market on High Street (now called Market), where they were slaughtered on the spot.

Today the historic districts are scattered through the modern city and are Disneyland-clean. In contrast, the rest of the city has numerous dirty and trash-ladenstreets. There are obvious signs of attempted beautification, but they are still sadly in the minority.

Even with the unsightly parts of the modern-day city, the fascinating historic sites make a trip worthwhile. These suggested stops -- by no means all the city has to offer -- can be seen in one entertaining day.

* Elfreth's Alley, Second Street between Arch and Race: Start the walking tour with an early morning stroll down Elfreth's Alley to evoke the past. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited residential streets in America, boasting 33 houses dating from 1728 to 1836. No. 126 is the Mantua Maker's House museum with period furnishings and exhibits.

Museum hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., daily. Free to walk the street, but the museum does charge admission ($2 adults, $1 children 17 and under).

* Fireman's Hall, 147 N. Second Street: From Elfreth's Alley, head a half-block north on Second for a quick stop at Fireman's Hall. Franklin founded the first Philadelphia fire company in 1731 when he was only 25, and today the restored firehouse contains some original equipment from the 1700s. Hours: 9 a.m.-4: 30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Free.

* Christ Church, Second Street between Market and Arch: Head south two blocks on Second for a stop at Christ Church. The place where Franklin worshiped offers lush grounds and a peaceful respite from the city's frantic beat. Inside, visitors can sit in the pews where Franklin (Pew 70), Washington (Pew 58) and Betsy Ross (Pew 12) once prayed for freedom. Open with guides on duty Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Free.

* Franklin Court, between Second and Fourth streets on Market: A stroll west on Market brings visitors to Franklin Court. Once owned by Franklin, this area was developed as a tribute to him. The front of the court faces Market with four restored buildings, including Franklin's print shop and the B. Free Franklin Post Office.

Franklin was a Renaissance man of epic proportions. Most colonists considered him the wisest man in America. Among his accomplishments are: designing bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove; publishing the first cartoon, first American magazine and Poor Richard's Almanac; setting up the first post office, library and fire company; founding the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital and the Philadelphia Library; and drawing lightning from the clouds with his famous kite experiment.

While Franklin Court gives visitors a sense of the man's greatness, it is also the most visually disappointing of the historic sites. This is because the plaza behind the restored buildings, which is reached through a portal, greets visitors with white steel girders and four ugly concrete slabs that look like small band shells. Closer inspection reveals the girders form a skeleton of Franklin's house and the concrete shells cover sections of the old house such as the kitchen and brick-lined privy. Nonetheless, they are jarring to those trying to evoke the past through visual clues.

Historically, the plaza is fascinating. Its flagstones have quotes from letters between Franklin and his wife, Deborah, and there's a major complex under the courtyard with a museum, diorama and theater. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily. Free.

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