A Philadelphia story W. C. Fields never knew
Philadelphia — Making a summer visit to Philadelphia might not have been W. C. Field's idea of a good time, but he never saw it in 1980. In fact, Fields could visit Philadelphia thism summer, he would have to choose some other city to be the butt of his jokes. The moldy one-liners such as "I spent a week in Philadelphia the other night" are no longer apt.
Philadelphia, once the political and cultural capital of the American colonies, has dusted off its best-known historic corners and salvaged those lesser known from the wrecker's ball. Around them all is a flowering of modern sculpture, gourmet restaurants, chic shops, lush green spaces, and urban ambiance that is embellishing the city with recaptured glory.
Part of the sprucing up is a direct result of the bicentennial celebration, which prompted city officials and private citizens to make the city more attractive for the hordes of tourists that were expected to come and see where the nation's birthday actually occurred. Tourists came, but not exactly in the hordes that had been anticipated.
"The bicentennial was a big disappointment for Philadelphia," observes one native long involved with the local tourist industry. "People overlooked us for New York and Boston, and we just didn't get much business. But now things have really turned around to the point were the '80s just might be our decade." Tourism in Philadelphia, once all but limited to quickie tours of Independence Hall and a glance at the crack in the Liberty Bell, is now an $800 million a year business.
What may strike the newcomer, first, is that sculpture is everywhere. Out along East River Drive, adorning the banks of the Schuylkill River like so many rosettes on an already delectable cake, are artworks ranging from Frederic Remington's rustic "Cowboy" to Carl Milles's exquisite and modern "Playing Angles." As one approaches the city center, the striking shapes become all the more apparent; Claes Oldenburg's "Clothespin" in Centre Square, a 45-foot whimsical steel statue to just what its name suggests is perhaps the best known and certainly the most controversial.
Not much of this art proliferation is accidental. It was given a great boost in 1959 when the Redevelopment Authority approved a resolution that 1 percent of any money spent on redevelopment in the city must go toward embellishing the projects with artwork. Since then close to 400 works -- sculpture, bas relief, mosaics, frescoes, murals, stained glass, and fountains -- have gone up throughout the city.
In view of this, it is appropriate that the splendid neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art presides over the city from its highest hill. If the massive, golden structure, that looks somewhat like a scene from "The Last Days of Pompei," seems familiar at first glance, at first glance, it may because it's where Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps during the movie "Rocky."
The museum's impressive holdings are well worth many visits. But if you have only time for one, try the American Wing, which exhibits paintings and furniture by Philadelphia artists and craftsmen.
The site of the musuem is where William Penn had longed to build his home. But, in a sense, the city itself is the estate he left behind -- the urban planning he instituted for Philadelphia in the late 17th century is still very much in evidence.
Penn's concept of Philadelphia as a "greene Countrie Towne" is perhaps best appreciated while touring the lush 8,000 acres of Fairmount Park. During spring and summer it is possible to catch a green and red trolley and take a 17-mile ride around the park, stopping at cultural, historical, and recreational attractions along the way. Among those attractions are the 42-acre Zoological Gardens (the nation's oldest), Auguste Rodin's famous statue of "The Thinker," and Robin Hood Dell West where the Philadelphia Orchestra gives concerts during June and July. The park also boasts what may be the nation's most elegant youth hostel, Chamounix, a federal-style mansion built in 1800 that is the Philadelphia headquarters for the American Youth Hostels.
In the 18th century a number of wealthy Philadelphians built their homes in Fairmount Park, primarily as summer retreats. Eight beautiful examples remain and are open for public view. But the piece de resistancem is Mount Pleasant, an elegant gray and white Georgian manor that embodies the best of Philadelphia craftsmanship. Among its famous owners was Benedict Arnold, who bought it for his bride, Peggy Shippen. Due to his subsequent conviction of treason, the couple was never able to move in.
Although the park is a world in itself, there's a good deal of history and beauty to be enjoyed in Philadelphia's "Center City" as well. Here the downtown business district, Independence Park, and neighborhoods like Society Hill and Queen Village have all benefitted from recent renovation efforts.
Perhaps the most dramatic example is one of the city's grand old hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford, which was already in a state of decline in 1976 when an outbreak of the so-called Legionnaire's disease focused attention on it. It closed in November 1976, was then purchased by the Fairmont Hotels group, which reopened it last September after a $22 million restoration project. Now called the Fairmont, the luxury hotel is resplendent with marble columns, decorated plaster ceilings, and stained glass skylights restored to their 1904 glory. It has had no trouble garnering a large share of the city's newly burgeoning convention and tourist trade.
Many of those tourists are also enjoying the city's very recent proliferation of excellent restaurants. One delightful spot in Center City is the Commissary, a cafeteria that dispenses such gourmet fare as pates, galantines, French entrees, and sumptuous desserts prepared by its seven full-time bakers. Another is the Garden restaurant, particularly popular for savoring a summer lunch (the avacado stuffed with curried mussels is sublime) in its flowering patio.
Sightseeing in Center City can easily be done on foot -- the most popular routes leading through Independence National Historic Park where lovely old Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell (to touch its aged, smooth surface is truly a thrill), and a splendid portrait gallery housed inside the Second Bank are among the long-renowned historic spots.
Walking through nearby Society Hill gives access to a wonderful mixture of history and urban beauty seen among the neighborhood's fine brick row houses restored to 18- and 19-century granduer. Many of those houses were salvaged by their present owners when redevelopment of the once depressed, crumbling area was started in 1957. A few, such as the elegant Powel House (George Washington dancedm there), are open to public view.
Bordering Society Hill is New Market where, on summer weekends, craftspeople and vendors exhibit their wares from brick stalls in a small area flanked by smart shops and restaurants. Many of these shops are enclosed in a glass and brick complex which, with its waterfront view and open-air fountain, has been called "The Ghirardelli Square of the East."
Just beyond New Market is another area of impressive redevelopment -- Queen Village, a neighborhood started by working class Philadelphians during the late 18th century. Restoration of the brick houses, much smaller than those in Society Hill, has been newly completed by some of the owners; for many others there is still work to be done. Here, still, the sounds of construction ring in the air as yet another corner of the nation's birthplace is being reborn.