Tuesday, June 11, 2013 : From Washington to Philadelphia


We are rather stubborn. The rain has stopped, the weather is sunny again, we are determined to take better pictures of the White House than yesterday's.


As soon as we finish breakfast, we leave our hotel toward Washington. It does not really divert us, we had to cross the Federal capital anyway to reach our next city, Philadelphia.


Of course, we are not taking the metro today. With some effort, we find an underground parking garage in 17th Street, just across the street from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, one of the buildings of the Executive Branch of Government. This parking is going to cost us a bundle for hardly two hours.


We walk up 17th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.


Washington, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, north entrance of the White House

Washington, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, north entrance of the White House


For obvious security reasons, the section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is a pedestrian area. No car can pass in front of the Presidential Residence, or in front of Blair House, on our left, where distinguished visitors are accomodated.


Like 10 Downing Street in London, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is one of the most famous street addresses of this planet. It is the main gate of the White House, through which heads of state and other distinguished visitors enter the residence. Behind the railings, we can see the North Lawn, with a nice fountain in its center and colored blossoming shrubs around it.


Behind us, Lafayette Square, a public park, honors four heroes of the Revolutionary War with their statues :


In  the center of the park, there is a statue of Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 against the British and 7th President of the Union.


As we can see on the picture, the White House is not that large. It is therefore flanked by two wings. The West Wing, added in 1901, is the true center of American Executive power. It includes the famous Oval Office. The East Wing, added in 1942, includes the White House Secretariat, the First Lady's office and the underground bunker. The original main building, the Executive Residence, is the Presidential Couple's residence and includes the main reception rooms.


Since Theodore Roosevelt, Presidents of the United States have been able, to some extent, to keep their working and private lives separate.


In the United States as elsewhere, the development of bureaucracy requires more and more floorspace. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located between the White House and 17th Street, accomodates other services of the Government and the Ceremonial Office, which the Vice President uses for his meetings and press briefings.


Washington, White House South Lawn, Michelle Obama's vegetable garden

White House South Lawn, Michelle Obama's vegetable garden


We walk around the White House complex on the east, passing in front of the Department of the Treasury, which runs the budget of the United States, collects federal taxes and handles the huge federal debt. Because of the latter, this institution regularly receives a lot of media and public attention.


We walk past the monument dedicated to General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the Union's most brilliant strategists during the Civil War, and we are again facing the White House South Lawn.


We take a few pictures of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden, which she planted in 2009. Unlike what I previously thought, this garden is relatively close to the fence. I assume that, when the First Lady gardens, all necessary security precautions must be in place !


Washington, the White House and the South Lawn

The White House and the South Lawn


At last, we can take a decent picture of the White House with a fair weather. We are on E Street, closed to all road traffic, which separates the Ellipse and the White House gardens. Police presence remains relatively discrete.


Along E Street (no relation with the street which gave its name to Bruce Springsteen's band) are the White House Visitor Center, closed for renovation at the time of our visit, and the Zero Milestone, a small granite monument from which all road distances in the United States ought to be calculated.


We leave E street to cross the park where we can see the First Division Monument, a tribute to the First Infantry Division, which served in Europe during WWI. This obelisk is topped with the Statue of Victory.


We then take the car and leave Washington for good.


We follow Interstate 95 to Philadelphia, crossing Baltimore without stopping. Today, we have been in four States : Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, plus the District of Columbia.


We arrive in Philadelphia at the very beginning of the afternoon. After parking the car and checking in at our hotel, we have the rest of the day to visit the city.


Philadelphia, Independence Hall

Philadelphia, Independence Hall


After New York CityBoston and Washington, Philadelphia is the fourth historic city in this trip. It was founded in 1682 by William Penn. Its Greek-sounding name means "The city of Brotherly Love".


Common sense dictates that we start with a visit of the nearby Independence National Historical Park. Marie has the nice surprise to get a few brochures in French.


This park includes many sites and buildings dating from the Independence era and later, when Philadelphia was the temporary Capital of the Union (1790-1800), while Washington was a work in progress. It deserves an extended visit. We can see a partial reconstruction of the Presidential residence that predated the White House in Washington, which the First President never actually inhabited.


At that time, against all odds, Philadelphia still harbored the hope to become the permanent Capital of the Union, although the banks of the Potomac had already been chosen to build the future Capital. This decision had been made into law by the Residence Act of 1790, which established the District of Columbia outside any State, under direct jurisdiction of the Congress.


Philadelphia Trolley Works

Philadelphia Trolley Works


At the visitor center, we are suggested a guided tour in an open-top double-decker bus. The weather is fine and, since we only have a few hours to visit the city, we jump on the opportunity.


In theory, we can jump off a bus at any stop and climb back on the next one, but we prefer to stay with the same guide, a young woman whose lively speech, full of anecdotes and humor, immediately makes us enjoy her home city, which she obviously knows by heart.


Later, we will come back to a few places, to better enjoy them.


Philadelphia, Sassafras Street, former name of Race Street

Sassafras Street, former name of Race Street


The center of Philadelphia dates back from the late 17th century. William Penn himself had named the original streets, choosing names of locally growing plants. Sassafras Street was renamed Race Street in 1853,  but this old sign is still there.


As can be seen on the picture, most buildings in the historic center are made of red bricks, as in Boston. There are a few carefully preserved traces of a foregone past : street signs, lampposts, pavements.


In the 1750s, thanks to its deep-water harbor accessible by the largest ships of the time and sheltered from the fierce storms of the North Atlantic, Philadelphia had become the second largest city of the British Empire after London, way ahead of Boston or New York City.


Nowadays, Philadelphia remains the second largest city on the East Coast after New York City, with 1,540,000 residents in 2012.


Philadelphia, the City Hall

The City Hall


Market Street, one of the major streets of the city center, is split in two by the City Hall. We are facing its east entrance. We will see the City Hall again toward the end of the tour.


Philadelphia, one of the 3,000 murals

One of the 3,000 murals in Philadelphia


Philadelphia is also very famous for its murals, which even have their own walking tours. With 3,000 paintings, the subject is almost boundless. I had to drastically select the pictures.


Originally launched in 1984 by Jane Golden, under the stewardship of former Mayor Wilson Goode, as an anti-graffiti program, the murals have since evolved into a highly popular street art form. Each year, about 100 graffiti writers are enrolled to channel their creative talent into the program, which has 36 full-time employees.


Artists may choose any theme for their paintings : imigration, environment, ethnic or religious representations, urban design. It looks like the only prerequisite to paint a mural is to have a large enough wall.


In Philadelphia, nothing ever gets done like anywhere else. To fines and prison, which may not actually solve much, the City of Brotherly Love favors consensual enrolling.


Philadelphia, statue of John Marshall

Statue of John Marshall


We are leaving the historic center of Philadelphia. After passing along Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison that favored reforming inmates rather than just keeping them locked behind bars, we cross Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wide avenue lined with trees and side alleys.


At the corner of Kelly Drive and 25th Street is a statue of statue of Joan of Arc, quite unexpected here, purchased in Paris by the city of Philadelphia in 1889, as a mark of friendship between the two cities.


Then, on one side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we see this statue of John Marshall, the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, whom we have already talked about. Such a non-conventional character was a natural fit for such a non-conventional city.


Philadelphia, the Please Touch Museum

The Please Touch Museum


Philadelphia sits between the Delaware River, a wide and deep river, and its tributary the Schuylkill River. Many parks have been set up, including, along the banks of the Schuylkill River, the huge Fairmount Park. On the opposite bank of the river, West Fairmount Park includes the Philadelphia Zoo.


Still on the opposite bank of the Schuylkill River is the Please Touch Museum. At the time America was celebrating its bicentennial, Portia Sperr had the idea to make kids under 7 play, to awaken their senses, beginning with touch. This highly interactive museum is a playful collection of activities specifically designed for the youngest. A visit may take well over three hours.


This museum sends us two messages. The first, for kids, is about awakening and curiosity. The second, for their parents, is that they absolutely ought to fight this quite natural urge to repeat their kids, whenever they are in a museum, "Don't touch !"


The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art


Then we go back downtown.


At the very end of Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, famous for its very rich collections of artworks of all kinds and all times.


This museum also remains in everybody's mind for the final scene in the Rocky movie, in which Sylvester Stallone runs up the 72 steps. The feat is repeated in Rocky II, III, V and Rocky Balboa. In Rocky III, a Rocky statue is installed for the movie purpose at the top of the stairs. This statue still exists, it is now standing in the park, slightly to the right of the steps. Running up the stairs in the Rocky movies is a metaphor of the American Dream, in which an individual starts from nowhere, upholds all challenges one by one and eventually enjoys a brilliant social status.


The famous final scene in the first Rocky movie has been one of the first cases in a mainstream movie of using a Steadicam, a stabilized camera that allows the operator to film steadily while walking, or even running.


We have seen many visitors re-enact the scene for their own usage, running up the steps while their girlfriend films with ther smartphones.


During the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, basketball player Dawn Staley, born in Philadelphia, carried the Olympic torch to the top of the stairs during her relay.


From the plaza on top of the stairs, the perspective of Benjamin Franklin Parkway extends as far as the City Hall. It is spectacularly beautiful.


Philadelphia, the City Hall, the Tower, the statue of William Penn

The City Hall, the Tower, the statue of William Penn


We are back in front of City Hall. The building has a 548-foot high tower, with a statue of William Penn, the city founder, at its top. It was the highest building in the world from 1901 to 1908. A long-standing local tradition dictated that nobody in Philadelphia would build anything higher than William Penn's hat, but it has been waived amid a wild public outcry in 1987, when Liberty Place, a compound including a shopping mall, hotels and offices, was erected.


These days, City Hall remains the 9th highest building in Philadelphia.


Philadelphia International Records, the Mecca of soul music in the 1970s

Philadelphia International Records, the Mecca of soul music in the 1970s


In the building at the corner of Broad Street and Spruce Street are the headquarters of Philadelphia International Records, founded in 1971 by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, songwriters, composers and producers. In the 1970s, Philadelphia was among the four major record companies of soul and funk music, along with Motown (Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder), Stax (Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding), and Atlantic (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett). The Philadelphia Sound gave us Thom Bell and the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, MFSB, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, the Three DegreesPatti LaBelle and many others.


Considering the less than appealing aspect of the building, the least we can say is that this company has obviously had better days. After a 2010 fire that destroyed a wealth of invaluable musical heritage, Philadelphia International Records mostly makes a living off re-releases and compilations, as shown by the success experienced by the 10-CD box set released in 2012 for the company's 40th anniversary.


As I spend a short moment in front of Philadelphia International Records, the 1970s music fan in me sheds a small tear of nostalgia. I sing Philadelphia Freedom in my head, a 1975 tribute to the Philly Sound by Elton John.


Philadelphia, Old City Hall

Old City Hall


The bus tour is now over, and we are back at Independence National Historical Park. Just in front of us is the Old City Hall, which used to be the seat of the Supreme Court from 1791 to 1800, when it moved to Washington, DC. It then became Philadelphia city hall until 1854.


We have plenty of time ahead of us, the weather is nice, and downtown Philadelphia is not that large. We are going to have a closer look at some places we have seen during the bus tour.


This walking tour is going to be highly educative, with a few surprises.


Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin's grave

Benjamin Franklin's grave


At the corner of Arch Street and 5th Street is the Christ Church Burial Ground, the graveyard where Benjamin Franklin is buried. Born in Boston in 1706, this universal genius, at times journalist, writer, painter, demographer, musician, inventor, scientist, ambassador, politician and statesman, fled to Philadelphia, where he settled, at the age of 17.


Benjamin Franklin is remembered for his research about electricity, that led to his invention of the lightning rod. He should also be credited with the first works on sea currents in the North Atlantic, leading to the discovery of the Gulf Stream, research about the wave theory of light, totally innovative and totally ignored in the 18th century, experiments on refrigeration, and inventing a clever glass harmonica. He was one of the first, and one of the best, chess players of the Thirteen Colonies.


Benjamin Franklin also organized one of the first volunteer firefighting companies and one of the first postal services in North America. This role as a chief postman allowed him to setup a communication network that would prove especially useful during the Revolutionary War. Later on, he became the first Postmaster General, or Post Office Minister, of what was not yet quite the United States of America.


After an assignment in London, he came back to Philadelphia just in time to be unanimously elected a Delegate of Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress, and contribute to drafting the Declaration of Independence, which was published in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.


Later, he became the ambassador to France, then to Sweden, of the young American nation. During one of his stays at Versailles, he befriended Mirabeau.


Back in the United States, aged 81, he took an honorific part in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, which drafted the United States Constitution. He is thus the only Founding Father to have signed the four major documents of the young nation : the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, The Treaty of Paris and the Constitution.


His last public mandate was President (he was not yet called Governor) of Pennsylvania, from 1785 to 1788.


Like Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas JeffersonBenjamin Franklin was a universal genius. He spoke six languages : English, French, Latin, Swedish, German and Italian. He died in 1790 at the age of 84, a major feat at the time.


Philadelphia, Betsy Ross House

Betsy Ross House


On Arch Street, we make a stop at Betsy Ross House. This trained seamstress, estranged from her Quaker family after her premature wedding with John Ross because of her pregnancy, joined the Episcopal Christ Church, where George Washington also worshipped. At the request of the General, she sew the very first American flag.


Unfortunately, no document or written statement backs this point of history.


The first American flag already has the thirteen interleaved red and white stripes, representing the Thirteen original Colonies, at last united in independence. In the top left corner, the field of five-pointed white stars against a blue background represents the States. In 1776, there are obviouly only 13.


The present flag with 50 stars was commissioned by President Eisenhower in 1959, after Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union.


Philadelphia, Elfreth's Alley

Elfreth's Alley


Not far away, we spend a moment in Elfreth's Alley, most likely the oldest residential street in North America, since it dates back to 1702. It takes its name from Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith and landowner of the time. The first residents were shipowners, working on the nearby harbor, shopkeepers, jewelers, cabinetmakers or glass blowers.


The 32 houses that line Elfreth's Alley, all authentic since they were built between 1728 and 1836, are carefully maintained and restored. On the ground, the cobblestones are also genuine, unlike the two concrete stripes on the sides, which were added much later to support a small measure of automobile traffic.


Each year, a large neighborhood celebration raises funds, to help pay for the restoration of the oldest houses.


The most surprising in Elfreth's Alley is neither the pristine condition of houses, we now know that Americans carefully preserve their historical heritage, nor the almost complete absence of automobile traffic.


The most amazing, here, is the absolute peace of this little historical corner, carefully held away from the urban frenzy so close by.


Philadelphia, Bladen's Court

Bladen's Court


An even smaller alley starts in Elfreth's Alley. It is Bladen's Court, opened between 1749 and 1753, to give access to a few plots enclosed behind houses on Front Street, the main avenue along the Delaware River.


There are only three houses in Bladen's Court. At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were five, including two occupied by brothers-in-law with radically opposite political opinions. William Rush quickly joined the Insurgency, whereas Abraham Carlisle stuck with the British, becoming the warden of the gate installed on Front Street. Later, when the Americans retook control of the city, Carlisle was hanged for treason in 1778.


At that time, sanitation was unheard of. There was a well in Bladen's Court, which was used by all the residents of the neighborhood to fill their buckets of theoretically drinkable water. But period documents have also confirmed the presence of toilets. This deplorable closeness is at the origin of the yellow fever epidemics that wreaked havoc in the city in the 1760s, and later in 1793 and 1794.


Philadelphia, Fireman's Hall, a 1902 fire station turned into a museum

Fireman's Hall, a 1902 fire station turned into a museum


We already wrote above that, in 1736, Benjamin Franklin organized one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in North America. To honor him prior to the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, in 1974 the city of Philadelphia and its fire department installed a small museum dedicated to firefighters and their equipment across the ages, in a carefully restored 1902 fire station.


Of course, one has to wonder how horse-drawn, hand-operated basic water pumps could overcome major fires in wooden buildings, admittedly not nearly as high as nowadays.


Behind the restored former fire station, a more modern extension has been added in 1977.


Philadelphia, Franklin Court, printing house, post office and museum

Franklin Court, printing house, post office and museum


We have already said that Benjamin Franklin had also setup one of the first postal systems of the Thirteen Colonies. In this building, which also sheltered his newspapers and printing press, a mid-18th century post office has been reconstituted. Since the Star-Spangled Banner had not yet been created at that time, it is the only post office in the United States on which no flag flies.


Its existence is under jeopardy, due to the ongoing reorganizations currently in progress within the USPS, the United States Postal Service.


Philadelphia, Library Hall, forerunner of the Library of Congress

Library Hall, forerunner of the Library of Congress


We cross again part of Independence Mall. We are now facing Library Hall, the forerunner of the Library of Congress in Washington.


On the same square, we can see a statue of Robert Morris, a rich merchant, born in Liverpool in 1734, who settled in Maryland at the age of 13. Later, he made a fortune in slave trading and trade with Britain, Italy, Spain, India and the West Indies. He largely bankrolled the Revolutionary War, an is one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.


Later, he became a Maritime Agent, a sort of Minister of merchant navy, which allowed him to closely control the Continental Navy, and Superintendent of Finance of the United States, a forerunner of the Secretary of the Treasury. He organized the First Bank of the United States, and became a United States Senator for Pennsylvania. Unsuccessful land speculation led him in prison for debt for three years, from 1798 to 1801. He died in 1806, at the age of 72.


Philadelphia, Best Western Independence Park Hotel

Our hotel, Best Western Independence Park Hotel


We are back in front of our hotel, an historical landmark by itself since it opened in 1856. It has now become a Best Western. At the time of our stay, the lobby is undergoing renovation, and the result promises to be really beautiful.


Despite the noise, largely caused by the works, and the lack of space in the room, we enjoy this nice hotel, conveniently located in the historical district of Philadelphia.


A moment later, we have dinner at the Red Owl Tavern, across the street from Independence Mall, where we celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary. After a Philly Cheesesteak, the unavoidable local dish, I join the conversation of the two gentlemen sitting at the table next to ours, who are asking themselves questions about "One if by land, two if by sea", Paul Revere's warning signal. It is my pleasure to shed some light on their debate, so to say.


Philadelphia's cultural and historical heritage is impressive :


Philadelphia is a very nice and very charming city to visit and, judging from what we have seen, where life must be really good.

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