A Philadelphia Story

No, not THAT Philadelphia Story.

I got into Philadelphia about 4:45 last Friday via the wonderful, fantastic BoltBus (it was quick, clean, relaxing, and I was kicking myself for not bringing my cell phone or iPod charger, ’cause they had power outlets on the bus). It was the first of an originally-scheduled two days and two nights in the City of Brotherly Love with my friend Kelly and our mutual friend, Hayley. I’d taken a later bus, so I was pretty sure that I’d meet up with them at the 30th street station.

They hadn’t gotten there yet.

In fact, Hayley never went at all – decided not to go at the last minute – and Kelly and her cousin Kevin had the bus ride from hell: two accidents along the Jersey Turnpike, including a tractor trailer colliding into a car. But, 15 minutes after I had gotten there, they arrived in Philadelphia, and we began our journey.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is about ten or fifteen blocks from the 30th Street Station, across the Schyulkill River. While most days the museum is open until 5, Friday evenings it is open until 8:45 – though only the first floor galleries and the second floor balcony. Apparently it was some sort of costume party (featuring styles from the Victorian Age to the 1920s), but we had neither the time, knowledge, or in my case, wherewithal for that. We spent a good two and a half hours walking through the museum, which basically was the Metropolitan south, except for its fixed $12 student admission fee (while I can pay whatever I damn well please at the Met). It was on the whole, marginally enjoyable, if a bit tiring.

Near the Museum was the Rocky Balboa statue. Rocky’s moved a few times – it was first at the museum, at the foot of the infamous steps; then went to the Spectrum for a good decade and a half; then back to the museum again. In addition, Rocky’s feet were at the top of the steps (Sylvester Stallone has really small feet!). We waited for Kelly’s aunt to pick us up to her house, where we’d be staying.

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The next morning, after Kelly and Kevin slept late, I left the house myself, took the trolley into town, had some breakfast, and decided to shorten my trip from three days to two. Since that was my second (and now, final) day in Philadelphia (heck, that really was my first and only day in Philly), I decided to make the most of it, going to almost every site on my list. It began with a walk to the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin is basically the New York Hall of Science (one of my favorite places, both as a child and today), except about twenty times larger. It’s got wonderful, hands-on (sometimes with a few too many hands on, and thus broken) exhibits on anatomy, biology, and physics, to name a few fields, with the building dedicated to the great Benjamin Franklin (who is literally all over Philadelphia). I felt like a kid in a candy store, from the Train Factory (where I found out how diesel engines and maglev trains work, and solved the mystery of a train accident), to the Space Command exhibit (where I found out my weight in space and that I probably wouldn’t survive on Mars), to the Fels Planetarium (where I saw a wonderful Liam Neeson-narrated show on black holes), to great exhibits on electricity, flight, and climate.

But two things stuck out the most: the Giant Heart and the SkyBike. The Giant Heart is an exhibit on circulation – the blood, our pulse, and a bit on exercise – with the centerpiece being, you guessed it, a two story walk-through model of a heart. The vestibules for the ventricles (and atria, and arteries, and veins) were largely made for kids, but my five-foot-eight frame made it few with ease. It was absolutely incredible.

The SkyBike (which I had to pay an extra $3.50 for, on top of the $15.50 to enter the museum – though, since I wasn’t going to pay the extra $8 or so for the Cleopatra exhibit they had in, and that I was probably never going to be there again, I decided to go) was a recumbent bicycle high above the second-floor atrium. (And yes, there’s a net, and you’re strapped in – they don’t want any kids dying at the museum.) It was great to bike over the atrium, seeing the people below.

The Sports Challenge was a bit of a letdown – I thought it would be a bit larger and a bit different from its New York brother at the Hall of Science, but it was almost exactly the same. By that point, I was kind of wiped out, so I went up to the Observatory, saw the Sun, got my pin, and called it a day for there.

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After a brief look inside the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library (which seemed to be a lot smaller than it looked) I walked about twenty blocks to my next stop, the Mütter Museum of Medical Oddities. I’d known about this for years since my old Armstrong House boss Harry recommended it to me, Kelly wanted to go as much as I did (actually, moreso – she actually spent three hours there to my paltry hour and a half, I found out when we ran into each other there), so I headed on over.

That joint, simply put, is creepy. Dozens of skulls, specimens of brains and broken bones, models of fetuses and other crazy stuff populated the two-floor museum. It was a lot larger than it was cracked up to be, and did not disappoint. Unlike Ripley’s and its ilk, though, it’s not meant solely to freak people out – it’s also to show proven anatomical examples of certain maladies and mishaps. (I give it credit for that.)

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Next up on the hit parade was the Rosenbach Museum and Library. The Rosenbach is basically a smaller, mid-Atlantic version of the Morgan Library and Museum, with hundreds of old books and manuscripts (the Rosenbachs were two brothers whose trade was buying and selling of old books and manuscripts), along with the papers (and living room) of modernist poet Marianne Moore, and many of the papers of Maurice Sendak’s (in fact, the building for exhibits is the Maurice Sendak building – they’ll be receiving oodles of stuff when Sendak passes). It is also a historic house museum, with the kitchen and sitting room of the Rosenbachs, and the earlier owner, the Gratz’s, preserved for people to see on tours. Even though I had my tour in reverse, it was quite fascinating – much moreso than the exhibit on Westward expansion, which I found fairly cursory and not at all stimulating (though their exhibit on Sendak and the Brothers Grimm was fun). During the tour, the only question going through my mind was, “Are you guys hiring?” because I love the sort of brushes with history I experienced on the tour.

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Notice I haven’t mentioned lunch yet. I’ll get to that tomorrow in my post comparing Philadelphia burger joint 500 Degrees to New York’s own Shake Shack.

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After the Rosenbach, I walked to the 15th Street – City Hall station, to take the Market Street line to Independence Hall. (I should note right now that the Philadelphia transit system, SEPTA, feels as if it’s in the Stone Age. The trolley I was on earlier in the day had ads that looked as if they were from the ’70s, and they still use tokens and cash as part of the fare for the train. But it’s small and cute and got the job done.) By this point, it was 5:00 and all of the buildings, save for Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center, and the Visitors Center, were closed (further, Independence Hall’s tour tickets were already distributed when I got there). I walked about Independence Mall, had my lunch near the closed Living History Center, and walked back to the train station…

…until I saw that the line for the Liberty Bell Center, previously going out the door, had let up. I had already seen the Liberty Bell about five years ago, so it wasn’t a problem for me if I didn’t see it, but I didn’t mind seeing it again (especially considering my bus wouldn’t depart for another 90 minutes), and walked in. After the security check and whatnot, I walked through the gallery and saw the Liberty Bell, taking a few pictures of the Pass and Stow-made bell. In the process, I ran into one of the folks I went to high school with, quite a coincidental meeting (and quite an enjoyable one). After seeing one of the indelible images of America’s history, I went back to the train, went to 30th Street, and took my bus back home to the Big Apple.

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I am leaving out one story from my journey, about both the future and the past of Philadelphia. The President’s House was where George Washington stayed in his second term in office (after the capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia), and where John Adams spent the first few years of his only term in office (before the capital moved from Philly to Washington, DC). The recent addition of the Liberty Bell Center to the Mall required an archaeological dig, which found remnants of the Presidents House, which was known to have (illegally) held some of Martha Washington’s slaves, such as her assistant, Oney Judge, and their chef, Hercules. The President’s House visitor’s center is still under construction, but it was really cool to see something my archaeology professor told me about.

You can see pictures about my Philadelphian journey on my Flickr photostream, here.

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One thought on “A Philadelphia Story

  1. Pingback: Week in Preface: The Year of Awesome « Daniel Pecoraro's Random Musings and Trivia.

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