I visit Philadelphia’s art museums several times a year, but only recently, to my embarrassment, got to explore the city’s Historic District. The cradle of the United States, this was where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written and signed and where five of the country’s first presidents lived, at least temporarily, while wading through the early years of the young republic–no wonder this area is called “the Most Historic Mile in America.” I enjoyed our walking tour (here is a handy map), so I thought I’d share the logistics of it all.
Arriving just after the Center opened at 8:30, we had no problem choosing our free timed tickets for the Independence Hall (for 9:00am), the Congress Hall (immediately after that), and two 18th-century houses on Society Hill (for 11am): the middle-class Todd House, former home of Dolley Madison and her first husband, and the high-society Bishop White House, home of a prominent Philadelphia clergyman. I thought this provided for a coherent, unhurried itinerary–we couldn’t have planned it better.
The Independence Hall, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began its life the same year as George Washington did, in 1732. First known as the State House of the Province of Pennsylvania, this building once marked the outskirts of Philadelphia and was one of the most significant public works projects in the colonies. The Liberty Bell, before famously cracking, used to hang in the State House’s wooden steeple.
Waiting for our tour in the
atmospheric park shaded with old American Sycamores behind the Hall, I began to feel my first pangs of awe at the prospect of going inside: this, literally, is where “it all” was first debated, drafted, decided, and announced for a young America. The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (and its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation), George Washington’s nomination as commander of the Continental Army, the first foreign minister to the new republic (sent by the French King Louis XVI, who lost his head in a revolution of his own only a decade later), and early news of Cornwallis’s defeat, signalling the end of the Revolutionary War, all were witnessed by these walls.
Inside the Hall, the guide was superb in bringing to life the feverish days leading up to the Revolution.
As you exit the Independence Hall tour, do not miss the small room outside with three very important documents: the oldest version of the Declaration of Independence (it was printed first, before the document signed by hand, now displayed in DC), the oldest version of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (our first Constitution), still bearing the last-minute edits by George Washington before he folded the document, put it in his pocket, and walked up to read it to the public, and the Constitution of the United States (the one that stuck).
The Congress Hall tour welcomes you from there (the National Parks Service site offers a Congress Hall podcast audio, certainly worth a listen): the Representatives met downstairs, while the Senate chamber was on the second floor, becoming forever “the upper chamber” because of this very house.
Further down the cobblestone streets are two houses whose fortunes were directly affected by the Congress Hall. First, the Todd House: home of the future Dolley Madison, a vivid example of how an 18th-century middle-class Philadelphia family lived. Dolley, a Quaker and an avid reader whose father believed in education for girls (the number of books at this house was unusual for the time and the station the family occupied–and most of these books belonged to Dolley and her sister), was married to John Todd, a local lawyer. They lived comfortably, but modestly in this house with their two sons until 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic that besieged the city killed John and Dolley’s youngest son. She was 25, and a year later met and married a Congressman from Virginia, the future President James Madison.
18th-century class distinctions instantly come into focus several doors down, in the Bishop White House, an example of Philadelphia’s upper-crust home. The first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, Chaplain to the Second Continental Congress, and, later, Chaplain to the United States Senate, Bishop White entertained three U.S. Presidents and many prominent Philadelphia citizens in this house. Perhaps most impressive for a city dwelling were the Bishop’s large kitchen and one of the first indoor lavatories in town (I’ve wondered what THAT looked like in the 18th century).
Outside, we ran into some friendly faces, bringing us back to the twenty-first century (well, maybe back to the 1980s).
From the Bishop White House, turn left on Walnut Street and head toward a dramatic circular building on Walnut and Third: the Merchants’ Exchange, the oldest existing stock exchange building in the United States. In the 19th century, it housed a coffee shop (merchants used to meet at coffee houses or taverns before this more formal meeting place was commissioned) and an open exchange area for buying and selling real estate, goods, and insurance.
About this time, lunch began to feel like a good idea–so I was happy to spot the quaint sign for the City Tavern in the shady grove facing the Exchange.
Built in early 1770s, the tavern’s convenient location made it witness to a number of exciting events: in 1774, the First Continental Congress met here informally, and this was where the first anniversary of independence was celebrated by the Congress delegates on July 4, 1777. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other members of government entertained foreign diplomats here into late 1700s. The entire area came on hard times in the 19th century, and the original structure was demolished, partially gutted by fire, in 1854. The tavern today is a faithful reconstruction of the historic building at its late 18th-century heyday, and the menu offers a curious glimpse into the food and customs of the time. I had fried tofu, made according to Ben Franklin’s excitedly-shared recipe from 1770 (a tofu aficionado he was not, but this was the earliest known mention of tofu in the colonies), and loved the beer.
Our morning in Philadelphia was coming to an end. We headed back to the shady Dock Street, past the Merchants’ Exchange, to the First Bank of the US, the oldest bank building, the oldest neo-Classical facade in America, and quite a controversy in its time. The bank was conceived by Alexander Hamilton, who saw it as the only way to manage towering wartime debt and standardize currency. The bank seized operations in 1811.
Don’t miss the more modest Carpenters’ Hall across from the bank. Before the grand building of the First Bank was completed, it housed the bank and was the site of the new country’s first bank robbery in 1798. Carpenters’ Hall was key to America’s movement for independence: This is where the First Continental Congress assembled in 1774 to list the grievances of the Colonies and where Benjamin Franklin gained France’s support of the colonists’ plight.
From here, we did not have time to linger at the Second US Bank (now a portrait gallery) or see in much detail the Liberty Bell and the very moving President’s House site, with its tribute to the slaves who lived here with George Washington as the new republic was being built and new freedoms introduced (but not for them). These and other denizens of Philadelphia’s Old Town will have to wait for another visit, one I look forward to this fall.
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