Sunday, October 10, 2010

Old City

It is difficult to say just what was the most spectacular thing I saw in Philadelphia. Form a purely visceral standpoint the city is just so nice it is hard to pick out one thing. From an emotional standpoint, the Old City, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center can not be beat. Sadly, Independence Hall was under going some major restoration when I was there, but the site of it alone was enough to stir up emotions without going in. The Liberty Bell was amazing to see in person.

The security around the Liberty Bell was very tight. As you enter the long, narrow building you are greeted by numerous security guards. I was so eager to get started with sight seeing that I actually arrived there hours before it opened and there were guards at post even in the wee hours of the morning. I get the feeling it is under 24-hour guard.

When you first arrive there you pass through a metal detector and must open your coat for a visual inspection. Anyone carrying a bag or purse is moved to the side where more guards do a more thorough search. Once through, there are some displays of historical items, history of the bell and even a short movie. I passed by all of this to get to the bell. It is just a bell, but it really stirred some emotions seeing it in person. It is maybe the most iconic thing I can think of about the history of this country. The image and story of The Liberty Bell go all the back to my childhood. I mean, it's The Liberty Bell. It is THE Liberty Bell and there I was standing a few feet from it. I was back in third grade, but now I understood the importance of it.

The Liberty Bell sits between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. The National Constitution Center is a modern building, as is the building that houses the Liberty Bell. The National Constitution Center consists of 2 floors. The first floor is really nothing more than a large entry area, a gift shop, and an exhibit space for different exhibits that change over time. When I was there the current exhibit was titled “Art of the Solider”. I did not see this exhibit.

The permanent exhibit starts with a multimedia presentation in a small amphitheater in the building. I wasn't expecting much, but it was really very good. It really was like a history lesson on steroids. The woman who narrated the presentation really did a good job. It is difficult to explain what I saw, so I won't go in to any more detail, other than to say it is not always “look at how great our country is”. It does not shy away from unfortunate parts of our history and problems with The Constitution. I highly recommend it

After that presentation you exit at the top of the theater to the second floor. This is a museum in the round. As you walk around you see a history of the major events in the US on the outer wall, and more creative and interactive displays at the center. This exhibit is constantly being updated. At the end, the last displays are about Barrak Obama's election, gay marriage, immigration, and the Tea Party. (The current political movement, not the Boston Tea Party). Along with these displays there are small writing shelves and post it notes for you to give your own opinion and post it to the exhibit. Remember, democracy is not a spectator sport.

After that you move in to a room where they have recreated a scene of the Founding Fathers debating the Constitution. Thirty or so members of the Constitutional convention have been recreated in life-sized bronze sculptures and placed in a room. It is powerful. You can stand next to George Washington and put you hand on Benjamin Franklin's shoulder. At the table where George Washington stands is a large book where the pairs of opposing pages are either a copy of the Constitution or a blank page where you can sign your name. The sign asks, “Would you sign the Constitution?”. I'm sure it sounds hokey, but it is really powerful. It really was a moment.

After several minutes of rubbing shoulders with the Founding Fathers I looked for the exit. It was a little confusing as to how to get back to the first floor. When I walked out of the room with the life sized sculptors I saw a small, semi circular hallway that had an entrance and exit on the same wall just 10 or 15 feet apart. As I walked by it the first time I saw a young woman in the hallway leaning against the wall. She was wearing the same Polo shirt and khaki pants that all of the other attendants wore. It seemed like the entire facility was run by young men and woman fresh out of high school. I didn't pay her much attention and kept looking for the exit. My internal clock which determines how much time I can spend in one place had run out and I needed fresh air.

I found a door that said “Exit”, which lead to an empty room with another door right next to it was also labeled exit. I walked in one door and out the other and ended up where I started. I headed back to the way I came, once more passing the semicircular hallway with the young woman in it. As I passed by I looked in and she smiled as we made eye contact. I decided to go in, if for no other reason than to find out how to get out. The hallway was dimly lit. As I rounded the corner I saw that the inside wall was glass. Hanging as if suspended in mid air was a copy of the Constitution that was originally printed in the newspaper just after it was signed by the Founding Fathers. I got goose bumps just looking at it. I started reading it and before I could get to the end of the first sentence I lost it. I just started crying. Not balling like a baby, but there were tears. I stood there for a few moments trying to compose myself. With my eyes filled with tears I couldn't read any more so I just stared at it, soaking it in. The woman behind me said nothing and fortunately no one else came in the whole time I was in there.

The whole experience was really wonderful. It was really done well. In reflecting on the the way the center was laid out it felt like I was taken through the steps of seeing how the Constitution came to be, seeing what it has wrought, meeting the men who framed it, and then seeing a copy of the document from the time that it was written. I highly recommend the whole experience.

All of this came after spending a day walking around Old City. There is Christ Church, Christ Church Cemetery, along with numerous other Colonial era and pre-Civil War era buildings. Christ Church Cemetery is where Benjamin Franklin and other famous people of the time are buried. Honestly, and without exaggeration, I think I walked down every street and alley in that part of the city. Half the time I was thinking to myself, Did George Washington stand here? Did James Madison and Thomas Jefferson stand in this alley to debate a point. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin leaned against this wall to stand in the shade for a moment and thought to himself, “I really must speak with Thomas about this declaration he is writing. My God, that man is wordy! Just say that King George is an idiot and get on with it!”

I love this building. They really made the most out of a small lot.

MDCCXCV = 1795

Christ Church 1695

Benjamin Franklin's grave at Christ Church Cemetery. Not the original marker. It is my understanding that many of the markers in this cemetery were damaged by acid rain. Remember that Philadelphia was the manufacturing power house in the region, going all the way back to the birth of the industrial revolution.


Sharon said...

Wow. Thanks so much for all the photos--makes me want to visit Philadelphia myself.

Greg said...

You're welcome, and you should go. Everyone should.

anj said...

We moved to Center City Philadelphia in August of this year. I love reading your take on this city I have fallen in love with.

Greg said...

I'm envious. I would love to move there. Anyone need a database programmer?

slateberry said...

Thank you for this and your other detailed posts of Philly. I keep coming back to the photos to take in more details. We are going there next summer and I will definitely try to follow in your footsteps. Move over tripadvisor!

Also, you should watch National Treasure if you haven't seen it already. Indiana Jones meets the constitution and Philadelphia, great fun!

Greg said...

I haven't seen that movie, but when I do see movies with Philly as a back drop now, I do look at them a different way (Was I on that street? That looks familiar)