Statue of Tamanend
A look down Elfreth's Alley
William Penn envisaged a beautiful waterfront for his city — something similar to the Embankment in London — but this was not to be. The area early became a scene of great commercial activity, and wharves, warehouses and taverns sprang up as they have for centuries in waterfront cities throughout the world. The district is thus one of the oldest and most historic in the city, for it was from the banks of the Delaware that Philadelphia grew westward toward the Schuylkill River.
There have long been dwellings here — Elfreth's Alley is considered the oldest continually inhabited street in the United States — but they were modest homes in contrast to the larger ones to be seen in the more affluent Society Hill. Perhaps this is the reason for the 19th-century attitude toward those who were born or lived "north of Market." They were beyond the pale socially. However less socially acceptable and less affluent these residents were, they were still craftsmen and artisans, a solid, sturdy lot, the backbone of the young colony and the even younger republic.
An 18th Century Market Shed
Stand at Second and Market Streets, looking east, and behold a recreation of an 18th century market shed. This is a reminder of the time when Market Street was indeed a bustling marketplace. At Second and Market was Town Hall, which housed courts and provincial offices, and anchored the Market. Town Hall's outdoor balcony was a favorite spot for oration and a pillory with prisoners being punished added to the frenetic nature of the market.
Christ Church steeple
Washington's pew overlooking Betsy Ross's pew
the graveyard behind the church
One block west is Christ Church, in all its beauty. The church is one of America's most historic shrines and as such Philadelphians have always revered it. Organized in 1695, during the reign of William and Mary, it was built between 1727 and 1754 when George II was king. There was a bas relief of His late Majesty on the church in the 18th century, but we are told that it was removed in the 1790s in a wave of either anti-British or pro-republican sentiment. A similar medallion is back on the church now above the Palladian window on 2nd Street. Philadelphia, very pro-British and fond of royalty and the trappings of kings, could not hold a grudge for long, it seems!
Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Betsy Ross worshiped here and, perhaps, its most important single feature is the font at which William Penn was baptized. It was sent to Christ Church in 1697 from London by All Hallow's Church, Barking-by-the-Tower. The chandelier brought from England in 1744 is still in use as is the "wineglass" pulpit, made in Philadelphia by John Folwell in 1770. Inside the church memorial tablets line the walls and slabs marking family vaults are beneath our feet. The pews of Washington and Betsy Ross are marked by small brass plates, and generally, the feeling of history abides in this church as much as in any American shrine.
Two Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris (1734-1806) and James Wilson (1742-98) are buried in the churchyard, as is Pierce Butler (1744-1826), who signed the Constitution and was a member of the Constitutional Convention. Five other Signers are buried in Christ Church Burial Ground, which will be seen later in this walk. Also buried here is Andrew Hamilton, the original "Philadelphia Lawyer," who is also credited with designing the State House, better known today as Independence Hall. A stroll around the churchyard is in order, especially if you are fortunate enough to be there when the eleven bells in the tower are rung after services on Sunday. The bells of Christ Church rang all day on July 4, 1788, when ten out of thirteen states agreed to ratify the Constitution.
No visit to Philadelphia would be complete without a stop at Elfreth's Alley, often referred to as the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. It was opened shortly before 1702 by Arthur Wells, a blacksmith, and John Gilbert, a bolter, and is only a stone's throw away from Christ Church. Just cross 2nd Street and walk north one-and-one-half blocks. Here among contemporary storehouses, wholesalers and the jobbers of commerce is a single street that provides a glimpse into the 18th century. It is named for Jeremiah Elfreth and was the home of carpenters, printers and craftsmen of all sorts. Benjamin Franklin once lived here although no one is sure in just which house. Betsy Ross visited the alley, for, although at the time of the Revolution Philadelphia was the second largest city under British rule (London was larger), the city itself was small by today's standards and most people in the city were known to one another.
In June, usually on the first weekend, Elfreth's Alley residents open their homes and gardens to the public. The oldest houses are thought to be 122 and 124, which were built between 1725 and 1727. The Mantua Maker's Museum House (1762) at 126, which is maintained by the Elfreth's Alley Association, is open to the public. A mantua is a capelike cloak that was quite popular with our 18th-century ancestors. Halfway down toward Front Street and the Delaware River, there is a small cobblestoned way to the left, Bladen's Court. There are only three houses that actually open on Bladen's Court, but two others have rear or side doors onto it. The last house has a spinning balcony, a tiny porch on the second story the width of the house itself, where, in earlier times, on pleasant days, the lady of the house set her spinning wheel.
Return to 2nd, and turn right a few steps to visit the Fireman's Hall Museum. Benjamin Franklin, who organized the first fire department — the Union Fire Company on December 7, 1736 — would be proud indeed of this unique museum, for there is nothing connected with fire departments, fire fighting and firemen that is not here. There are fire engines from 1700s and 1800s, all equipped with beautiful old brass fixtures. The first ones were hand-drawn, hand-operated by the men themselves and before our modern ones, of course, there was the horse-drawn fire engine.
Here are the leather buckets for water, miniature engines, nozzles, hoses, firemarks from old houses, parade hats, early fire insurance policies, medals and even a brass pole which goes from the third to the first floor, typical of those that firemen slid down for generations. Perhaps the art of the fire engine was carried to its apogee in the "Spider Hose Reel," made in 1804.
Walk north and take a right onto Race Street. Pause at number 142 — Rose's House. The house remains much as it was when built, shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Number 140 has a stoop (stoep, as the Dutch called it) which is of a later vintage. Since these houses had no front porches, stoops served as sitting places in the pleasant weather for generations of Philadelphians. The house at 144 is 19th-century. The first floor facade is of stained wood, superimposed over the brick — almost a cabinet-work effect — and is very rare. Most old Philadelphia houses are entirely of either stone or brick. Stone is native to Pennsylvania and in the 18th century brick was brought from Europe as ship's ballast. The English who built in the late 17th and during the 18th century had reason to remember the horrors of the fire of London (1666) and wanted no recurrence in Philadelphia.
Returning to 2nd and Arch Streets, turn left on Arch and walk again toward the river. On the northwest corner at 101-111 Arch, there is a series of fine iron-front buildings constructed between 1855 and 1857. The group typifies the buildings the Victorians gave us, which today are appreciated for their beauty and functionalism. Warehouses, commercial buildings and lofts don't have the allure for the layman that grand town houses or even small, intimate ones have. Man likes to see the lares and penates of his ancestors — the antiques — in their proper surroundings. However, nothing reveals the character of a town or city like the buildings near its rivers and wharves. Here was the lifeblood of Philadelphia.
Stroll along Front Street to see some marvelous 19th-century buildings and an occasional 18th-century one, such as that at 46 North Front Street, at the northwest corner of Cuthbert Street, formerly Coomb's Alley. Built in 1785 as a home and a store for John Clifford, it became a store and warehouse from 1821. It cannot be stated too often that we must remember and constantly be aware of the small islands of architectural beauty floating amidst the terminals of commerce in Philadelphia. Even Philadelphians are often unaware of them. On our historical-architectural quest we should never fail to examine the lowliest alley, the darkest byway, the most decrepit entry, for beyond may lie a real find.
Four-story apartment building
Leave the alley and turn left. At 112-116 we find three houses built as rental properties about 1760 by Henry Harrison, a merchant. Coomb's Alley, to call it by its old name, was once similar to Elfreth's Alley in character, and these three houses and the one adjoining have been restored. Nearby is a splendid four-story apartment building, with a door on each landing (rather unusual). There is the inevitable hook at the top, for raising and lowering goods, and old "S" irons which lend support to the ancient structure.
Old World piazza
Turn into Cuthbert Street and take a left into the courtyard which hides several houses that sit just off the alley. An enchanting sight awaits. The owner of one of the buildings — which once was likely a stable — has festooned the wall with sculptures of all sorts. You can see Christ Christ over the rooftops. For a moment one feels transported to an Old World piazza. Delights such as these await the intrepid walker willing to poke his head around a corner or down an alley. This may still be a commercial district, but there are pleasures here no suburbanite can savor — the sound of a ship's horn at night, the sight of the vessels themselves or the wind that breathes in and out of these alleys, around these corners.
Walk to 2nd Street and make a right, then a left onto Arch Street. Less than a block away, with flag flying proudly is the Betsy Ross House. Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashbourn Claypoole (1752-1836) — she married three times — made the first American flag. This house, shrine to Betsy and to the American flag, was built about 1760 and thousands of persons visit it each year — its popularity is third only to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. Tours are self-guided. Instructional plaques in the first-person voice of Betsy herself lead the visitor from room to room in this charming house.
Cross the street and continue west on Arch Street. Midway between 3rd and 4th we come to the Friends Meeting House, the main part erected in 1804, the west wing in 1811. The oldest Friends Meeting House still in use in Philadelphia and the largest in the world, it is the site of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, held every spring. Inside are dioramas depicting the main events of William Penn's life and his contributions, showing that Penn's inheritance belongs not only to Pennsylvania but to the nation. The ground around the Meeting House was first used for burial purposes under a patent issued by William Penn in 1701, and many victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 are buried here. The epidemic produced the fearful street cry, "Bring out your dead!" as the carts bearing bodies rumbled over the Philadelphia cobbles. Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), the first American novelist (Wieland), is buried here. Strangely enough, James Logan, certainly one of the three greatest Philadelphians of the Colonial period — with William Penn and Benjamin Franklin — lies here in an unmarked grave.
Cross directly opposite, and between 321 and 323 Arch is Loxley Court. Through the iron gates can be seen the beautifully restored houses, a private and quiet corner in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. Benjamin Loxley, a carpenter who worked on Independence Hall and Carpenters' Hall, was the court's first resident in 1744. The Methodists took over a tavern or "pot house" at Number 8 as their second meeting house in 1768. They held prayer meetings on the first floor and the minister preached out of the second-floor window to the congregation gathered in the courtyard below. Loxley himself lived in Number 2, and it was the key from the front door of this house that Benjamin Franklin used in his kite flying experiment with lightning. The houses are 18th-century dwellings, the earliest of the ten built about 1770.
View from Christ Church Burial Ground
At this point, walk south along 4th Street, and, after you pass the entrance of the Holiday Inn, notice the two interesting plaques affixed to the wall of the building. One reminds us that on this very site stood the "New Building," erected in 1740 for George Whitefield and also for use as a charity school. The other memorial serves to commemorate the historic organization of the American Unitarian Church. In one of the buildings of the University of Pennsylvania, "The First Society of Unitarian Christians in Philadelphia," which was actually the first church in America to adopt the official Unitarian name, was formally organized at ceremonies here on June 12, 1796, under the very noteworthy influence of Dr. Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), the celebrated theologian and philosopher, the discoverer of oxygen and the founder of modern chemistry, as well as the inflexible defender of human rights. Dr. Priestly later left the Philadelphia area to settle in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
A few steps farther and we are at a greenwalk that leads to the National Museum of American Jewish History. The picture here shows a memorial to Jonathan Netanyahu, hero of the Raid on Entebbe, and brother of Benjamin, the current Prime Minister of Israel. It stands outside the entrance to the museum. The museum, a symbol since its founding in 1976 of the contributions of the Jewish people to the growth and development of the United States, is the only such institution exclusively dedicated to a comprehensive narration of the Jewish experience in this country and to a documentation of the full range of Jewish participation in the social, cultural, political and economic evolution of the nation. The museum possesses a vast collection of portraits, photographs, furniture and a variety of religious ceremonial objects, as well as contemporary arts and crafts. The collection is often used to augment visiting shows or to mount exhibitions sponsored by the Museum itself.
From here walk north to 4th and Race and find the Old First Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ (originally the German Reformed Church). The present building is the third church on the site and was dedicated in 1837 (the church was founded in 1727). In 1882 the congregation moved to another location — this had originally been a German-speaking neighborhood — and then this lovely old building was used as part of a paint factory; between 1882 and 1966 some unsightly appendages were incorporated. When the congregation returned to its original location, these eyesores were removed, the old brick cleaned and restored.
If we walk north on Fourth Street and go under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, at 235 North 4th Street we come to Old St. George's Methodist Church. Called "The Cradle of American Methodism," it is the oldest Methodist church in the world, and has been in continuous use for well over 200 years. In 1777, the British occupied Philadelphia, using Old St. George's for a cavalry school — it still had a dirt floor and its front door opened directly onto the street. In 1784, Richard Allen, the first African-American licensed to preach by the Methodists in America, was licensed by St. George's.
The church has fragile, black, lacy chandeliers of iron that contrast beautifully with the white interior. The Methodist Historical Society museum has a collection of furniture, church silver, even a cobbler's bench, the saddlebags which were used by itinerant preachers, and cases full of memorabilia of all sorts, even tickets for a Love Feast of 1770!
St. Augustine's steeple
Across the street is St. Augustine's Catholic Church. The original was founded in 1798 and destroyed in the anti-Catholic riots in 1844 when many Catholic churches were burned. The city was in a state of near anarchy then and even the governor was intimidated by the mob. In this fire, a "sister" bell of the Liberty Bell was also destroyed. Rebuilt in 1847, the church is of interest because the Irish friars of the Order of St. Augustine, who established the parish in 1796, also founded St. Augustine's Academy at this location in 1811 — the forerunner of Villanova University, the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in Pennsylvania. In December, 1992, a brutal storm literally blew off the steeple of St. Augustine's Church. The steeple actually landed right on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, closing the span for three days. A fifty-foot chasm opened in the church's roof subjecting many priceless paintings and murals on the ceiling to water damage. But the history of St. Augustine's proves that after a catastrophe the church rebounds even stronger. Insurance money ("act of God") paid for a new steeple.
Returning to 4th and Race Streets, go around the corner to the 5th Street entrance of the United States Mint. The first Mint was erected in 1792, and the first coins were silver half-dimes made by hand from silver plate belonging to President Washington himself. The following year copper cents and half-cents were manufactured for public use. The Mint tour is self-guided and fascinating to take. Walking along a gallery, one can look down at the various operations taking place. The larger presses stamp out 600 coins per minute, the smaller 300, and one blow of the press strikes the obverse and reverse designs plus any design on the edge.
The museum area contains cases of medals and coins (United States and foreign) and the first coining press of 1792 on which the coins were laboriously struck by a screw press. A Pyx is also on display. A locked box with one or more slots on top, the Pyx was for coiners who were required to place randomly selected coins in it as they were produced. The Pyx was then opened only in the presence of the committee to test the coinage. This particular 18th century Pyx was donated by the Master of the Netherlands Mint.
Ben Franklin's grave
Just opposite the Mint is Christ Church Burial Ground. Here Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's graves can be seen from the street through the grating. At Franklin's death some 20,000 Philadelphians followed his cortege to his grave here, as his death in 1790 severed the tie to Colonial Philadelphia. William Smith, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania and his old enemy, gave the eulogy in Christ Church, and the Comte de Mirabeau did the same before the French National Assembly in Paris. Franklin was as well loved by the French as by the Americans and as honored by them, too.
Also buried here are Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), the Father of American Medicine who was also a Declaration signer and Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837), Father of American Surgery. Three other Signers lie here: George Ross, Joseph Hewes, and Francis Hopkinson (1737-91) — a composer who also designed flags and currency.
Opposite 5th from the burial ground is the Free Quaker Meeting House, built in 1783, the last year of the Revolution. "The Fighting Quakers," or the Free Quakers as they are sometimes called, were a splinter group who broke with the main body during the Revolution. They took the oath of allegiance and bore arms which put them at odds with the main body of Quakers. There were about 200 of them in the beginning and from 1783 until 1834 they met here. Betsy Ross, as Mrs. Claypoole, worshiped here, and Betsy was, if anything, ecumenical before it was fashionable. We have seen her pew in Christ Church and she was married to Joseph Ashbourn at Old Swedes' Church. Of particular interest is Betsy Ross's tissue pattern for the star, given to Samuel Wetherill, one of the founders of the Free Quakers, by Betsy. Tradition has it she told George Washington she could fold a piece of cloth and with one snip of the scissors make a perfect five-pointed star. Wetherill put the pattern in a safe which was, in true Philadelphia fashion, not opened for 150 years.
Leaving the Meeting House, look north past the first park with the fountains to Franklin Square, one of William Penn's five original squares. It is still one of the greenest spots in Philadelphia, for the trees are old and large. Once surrounded by fine houses and churches, the square fell on difficult times as the city changed, but was brought back to life in 2006 with a caroussel and miniature golf course. The city swirled around it, but it remained quiet, a place of repose for many footsore dwellers, while providing entertainment and amusement for children. Walt Whitman was one of its better known bench-sitters as was the author, Christopher Morley.
Near the park's east side, hard by the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge is a 60-ton, 101-foot high, stainless steel lightning bolt statue, the work of Isamu Noguchi. Honoring Benjamin Franklin's famed kite-flying experiment, it is an elctrifying welcome to those who cross the bridge into Philadelphia.
Standing on Race Street, look down the Mall to Independence Hall. Around you are colonnades (thirteen arches in each), which flank this segment of the Mall. Less than two score years ago, the very mall we are walking on was once crowded with commercial and industrial buildings — many quite rundown and seedy. The Cradle of Liberty was crowded in on all sides, hardly visible unless one was upon it. Between 1953, when the state began razing the old buildings, until 1966 when it was officially finished, the Mall — under the supervision of the General State Authority — took shape. One block south is a fountain - dedicated in 1955 to Judge Edwin O. Lewis, one of the idealists who had vision enough to see and work toward this goal as early as World War II. He was a founder of the Independence Hall Association, your hosts on this virtual tour.