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Philadelphia: Where you can find history around every corner
By Kathleen Ostrander

Although Karen Witter works in a museum all day, she still picked a city with plenty of museums for her to visit on her recent vacation.

The associate director of the Illinois State Museum, Witter thought it was perfectly natural to go to Philadelphia for a family vacation. It helped that her daughter was going to graduate from college there. Dorothy Witter is going to one of the few universities that offers a degree in museum communications.

"Philadelphia is a very cool city, and they've got phenomenal museums," she said with a laugh.

The idea behind Philadelphia was that it was supposed to be laid out in a grid spreading out from the river. It didn't quite work out the way envisioned in its original charter and instead, early settlers congregated around the river.

The City of Brotherly Love is considered quite tourist-friendly. Center City is the basic downtown, and the 25 blocks are color-coded with directional signs.

There are so many historic sites, as well as eclectic shopping and eating areas and all manner of museums, that there's no way to be lost or bored.

Tours are offered by bus, trolley, double-decker bus, duck tours, horse and carriage and even moonlit kayak tours.

A significant number of museums are clustered on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which stretches from City Hall to Fairmount Park. Along the parkway is The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Franklin, Academy of Natural Sciences, the Rodin, The African American museum and just a little off the beaten path is the Mutter Museum, one of the country's oldest professional medical artifact museums.

Witter said she and her family were impressed by the National Constitution Center. It is located in Independence National Historical Park.

The park has 50 free attractions, including the Liberty Bell; Franklin Court, which is the site of Ben Franklin's home as well as a print shop and post office; and Independence Hall.

"The National Constitution Center is to Philadelphia what the Abraham Lincoln Museum is to Springfield," Witter said. "You can wander around and see the room where the Constitution was signed and then go across to Independence Hall and they have figures of the people who signed it - groups of people together talking - and it puts it in better context of what happened. I think the Abraham Lincoln Museum and the National Constitution Museum do very well at putting history in a context that people can understand," she added.

The Franklin Institute is a science museum that is hands-on and a family pleaser. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has the famous Swann Fountain, with three water-spouting sculptures that represent three waterways. At the foot of the museum steps is the triumphant "Rocky" statue and celebratory footprints decorate the 72-step climb where the movie character trained.

Witter said the Comcast Center, which was completed in 2008, was amazing. "There was this wall inside, and sometimes it looked like paneling and then it just changed to this gorgeous scenery or scenes of someone washing windows that was so realistic," she said.

The Comcast Center calls it installation art. It is a 25-foot-high LED screen composed of more than 6,700 separate modules. For 18 hours a day video presentations include views of Philadelphia historic sites, images of space, dancers, acrobats and actors moving around a background designed to mimic wood paneling.

"We took in a Phillies game and the stadium is just beautiful," Witter said. The family had the good fortune to meet Jayson Werth who was gracious and signed autographs.

"We had a Philly cheesesteak and it was good. There was so much to see and do, we're going to have to go back," she said.

Some Philly facts

  • The cheesesteak is sliced rib-eye, grilled onions and Cheez Whiz on an Italian roll. Two restaurants, Geno's and Pat's, contend they have the most authentic cheesesteak. However, plenty of other dining spots dispute that.
  • If you order a lager, you'll get a pint of Yuengling (ying-ling) brewed in Pottsville, Penn.
  • Philadelphia has its own China Town. It also has a Hard Rock Café, and Philadelphia City Hall is the largest free-standing masonry building in the world.
  • Christ Church is the church where Betsy Ross, George Washington and Ben Franklin worshipped.
  • Avenue of Arts is a cultural district - the 3.5-mile stretch has nearly 40 concert halls, theaters, performing arts venues and museums.
  • Simeone Foundation Automotive museum has one of the world's largest collections of racing sports cars.

Philly firsts

  • First public grammar school founded in 1689.
  • First public library - the Free Library of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin.
  • America's first hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital founded in 1779.
  • The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in Philadelphia in 1805, is the first art school and art museum in America.
  • America's first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, founded in 1874.
  • The first institution funded and built by a major municipality to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage of African-Americans, the African American Museum was founded in 1976.
  • The nation's first ice cream producer, Louis Dubois Bassett, opened an ice cream stand in 1861 and later moved to the Reading Terminal Market.
  • The first National League baseball game - the Philadelphia Athletics played the Boston Red Stockings in 1876.
  • Mother Bethel AME Church, the first AME church in the world, sits on the oldest piece of land owned by African-Americans in the United States.


Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )

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