My first job in high school was as a tour guide at Lucy The Margate Elephant. I spent a summer giving trolley tours of Atlantic City in the character of Nucky Johnson, in a short-lived attempt by a local bus company to capitalize on the Boardwalk Empire craze. And two years ago I was hired to put together a candy factory tour (easily the best summer job I ever had), so I have long been interested in the many different tours of Philadelphia offered on foot, in horse-drawn carriages, and via duck-boat—to name only a few of the many ways to see the city. Therefore, when I heard about the annual Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour of Philadelphia I knew I had to skip a day of schoolwork to go. Even though my feet still hurt days later, it was definitely worth a twelve-hour urban trek for the chance to see several experienced guides in action, to learn about innumerable city sites, to run through a range of small but fascinating museums, and even to listen to costumed interpreters portraying key historical figures including founder William Penn, patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush, and political martyr Octavius Catto.
Broken into four segments lasting two-and-a-half hours each, the tour began in Olde City, where in addition to several churches and the Betsy Ross House (at which the fact that she most likely did not famously sew the first flag is celebrated at a place in which she never lived), we also visited the Fireman’s Hall Museum. Beginning in the mid-1970s (at just about the same time as the African-American Museum in Philadelphia as well as the Mummers’ Museum were both built) during a period when the bicentennial brought herds of heritage tourists to the city. The Fireman’s Hall Museum features 19th century engines, activity centers for kids, and a truly beautiful stained-glass memorial to fallen comrades. It also reminds visitors that the main reason why Broad Street was designed so wide was to prevent a recurrence of the 1666 Great Fire of London in Philadelphia. The second segment of the Great Tour visited several stops to the southeast of Independence Hall such as the Physick House, home Dr. Philip Syng Physick, which includes one room devoted to a 19th century medical museum. In addition to being the so-called ‘father of modern surgery’ and the grandfather of Emlen Physick (whose estate is the heart of Victorian house tours in Cape May) Dr. Physick is also the inventor of America’s first soda-pop in 1807 (considered a medicine throughout the 19th century) which we were given as a taste test on the tour and which is still bottled locally today.
The third segment of the Great Tour offered each group (consisting of about 20 people and led by certified city guides) the chance to explore the area to the southwest of Independence Hall including Washington Square Park, home to an unknown Revolutionary War soldier’s tomb and a moon mission memorial tree, as well as The Atheneum. Just east across Sixth Street from the park, and housed in the first Brownstone built in the city, the Atheneum contains rotating exhibits on Philadelphia architecture and rare books as well as a permanent exhibit about Napoleon’s little brother Joseph Bonaparte (whose former home the tours also walked by) and one of the nicest reading rooms I’ve ever seen. Like other institutions discussed by Gary Nash in First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (the Library Company, Pennsylvania Historical Society, and American Philosophical Society for example) the Atheneum was founded as a space for intellectuals to share books and ideas but now persists as a place to do research and learn about local cultural history through museum displays. The final segment of the tour was by far the longest, beginning at City Hall and ending at the Fairmount Waterworks. It included a walk by massive museums such as the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Sciences, the relocated Barnes Institute, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as the smaller Rodin Museum, which is not to be missed. Beyond his best bronzes (The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell) the Rodin museum also contains a marble copy of The Kiss and two full rooms dedicated to the sculptor’s studies for monuments to famous French authors and artists, as well as one to an obscure Argentine politician.
Despite devoting a full day to sightseeing, not all the important sites of Philadelphia could be on the tour, and this is potentially a problem for places off the beaten path. A prime example might be the Rosenbach Library and Museum, which has been the primary home of the artwork and papers of author Maurice Sendak—perhaps best known for Where The Wild Things Are and The Night Kitchen—for nearly fifty years but is about to lose most of their extensive Sendak collection to a soon-to-be-constructed museum in his longtime Connecticut hometown. Located south of Rittenhouse Square, in a building that blends almost invisibly into the neighborhood of ritzy row homes that surrounds it, the Rosenbach suffers from being one of the only museums in that part of a city where visitors seeking heritage tourist experiences often try to see as many sites as they can in as little time as possible (a goal symbolized by the very existence of a Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour). After merging last year with The Free Library the Rosenbach’s future seems sustainable, but with a current Sendak exhibit (along with the collection) set to depart on November 2nd, now is the ideal time to visit the Rosenbach.