America's most historic square mile
25.05.2013 17 °C
The first city my family took me to visit on the US East Coast was Philadelphia and in particular the L-shaped group of downtown city blocks that make up the Independence National Historic Park and contains many of the key the historical buildings from the time of the American Revolution. Having parked underneath the Independence Visitor Center and made our way past our first Benjamin Franklin look-a-like, I got my first view of Independence Hall ...with a group of Chinese looking people surreally performing Falun Dafa on the lawn out front trying to attract new recruits!
Our first stop however was to see the famously cracked Liberty Bell which has become an iconic symbol of freedom. The bell was originally made in London and hung in the then State House (now Independence Hall) in 1753 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania's constitution with the inscription from the Bible Leviticus 25:10 "Proclaim Liberty through all the land, to all the inhabitants thereof". The bell was only tolled for important occasions (most notably for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776) but became cracked sometime between 1817 and 1846 and after several attempts to repair it hasn't been rung since.
The centrepiece of the National Park is Independence Hall itself, a world heritage site and a lovely example of Georgian Quaker architecture. Although free to get in (as are most government owned heritage buildings) we needed timed tickets that had to be booked several days earlier. Our tour began with a talk in the East Wing explaining the historical context (as a Brit I was surprised how the American Revolution was portrayed as something few really wanted and was stumbled into almost as a last resort).
We were than taken into the main building underneath the white clock tower and shown the Courtroom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and then the Assembly Room itself (which is where everything happened - George Washington appointed Commander-in-Chief 1775, Declaration of Independence adopted 1776 and a lot more besides).
Behind Independence Hall is Independence Square which is where first public reading of the Declaration of Independence happened in 1776. In the middle of the square is statue of John Barry, born in Wexford (Ireland) in 1745 he was the first captain of a US warship and is credited with being "The Father of the American Navy" (an epithet sometimes also used for John Paul Jones).
We then hoped to visit Congress Hall on the west side of Independence Square (which is where the US Congress met between 1790 and 1800) but there was quite a long wait until the next tour so I decided to cover this off when I was due to visit Philadelphia again a bit later on my trip. Instead we had a look around the West Wing of Independence Hall which is where original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States are on display.
The final historic site we passed was Franklin Court which consists of a row of five restored tenement shops, three of which were originally built by Benjamin Franklin in the 1780s. They lead onto a courtyard where Benjamin Franklin's house itself once stood which has an underground museum filled with artifacts associated with him but we didn't have time to go in and see it. Amongst the restored tenement shops is a 18th century printing shop - similar to Franklin's own business, a postal museum and a real US post office - the only one in the country that does not fly the US flag as it didn't yet exist when it first opened in 1775.
We then went on an unsuccessful quest to find somewhere I could try the local fast food known as a Philly Cheesesteak before my 2 hour train journey from Trenton into New York to see an exhibition soccer match at the Yankee Stadium. That dubious culinary delight will have to wait for me until another time!