Interpreting Philadelphia

I just got back from Philadelphia, which is an interesting case study not only in historic preservation but in the interpretation of historic sites. You can find historic house museums, living history interpreters, historic neighborhoods, historic markers, and of course major patriotic sites, like the room where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were written.

That room of course is in Independence Hall, one of the first sites preserved in the 19th century, for its patriotic associations. That is why sites were preserved – patriotic associations – pretty much until the early 20th century. Architecture was simply a means to that end.

Independence Hall became a Pennsylvania state building in 1800 when the government moved to Washington, D.Cl, and its wings were demolished (they are now rebuilt). Indeed, this site has a lot of rebuilding over time. Today the hall and a number of other buildings – including Congress Hall – are all part of a National Park. The Liberty Bell is in a new visitors complex, nicely positioned so when you look at it you can see the tower it used to hang in until the mid-19th century.

The amount of intervention in the fabric of Independence Hall has been significant since it became a National Park, which includes much of the land around it. Every preservation student learns about how two blocks of historic buildings were removed to create a mall or vista to Independence Hall, part of the urban philosophy of degagement that influenced the treatment of landmarks for about a century after 1860. It is like the medieval quarter cleared in Paris to give us all a triumphal view of Notre Dame.

Of course, so much time has passed that many of the 1960s modernist highrise buildings surrounding the mall are now, themselves, historic landmarks, for their architectural significance. Architectural significance became a preservation goal in its own right a hundred years ago, and is arguably the dominant preservation motivation today.

We even had the chance to stay in the PSFS, the first fully modernist skyscraper, now reborn as a hotel and lovingly restored with a fidelity to the period (1932) and its aesthetics that is almost disarming. It is well interpreted, with graphic signage in the elevator lobbies and plaques letting you know what kind of marble was used for the walls.

We also found some living history in the Free Quaker meeting house where a costumed interpreter did an excellent job engaging his audience.

The relatively new (and expensive) Constitution Center museum does a multimedia show with a live actor that I found pretty effective, along with exhibits on the Constitution itself and the bill of rights. This is a modern museum with plenty of interactive stuff, none of which you can take pictures of, at least until you get to the room where life-sized statues depict the Constitutional Convention and allow a more basic form of interaction. I guess “interactive” is at least as old as statues.

What strikes me about the interpretation of historic sites in this most historic of American cities, where they have been interpreting history longer than almost any other American city, is that every method of interpretation is still there and still used. Even the metal signs, which are the oldest form of site marking around, are still being made – we saw some from 2009 – and they use the same awkward kerning and raised lettering that they did back in the 1930s.

There are also the typical National Park Service wayside signs, their shape, height and angle unchanged from Yellowstone to Lowell and everywhere in between.

In fact, this one is from Franklin Court, one of the most interesting historic sites, where the Market Streets storefronts were restored, but Benjamin Franklin’s shop and home – long ago destroyed, were not rebuilt in the 1970s by Venturi and Scott Brown but instead interpreted with ghostly contours of steel describing the shape of the house in space, with giant scoops of concrete leading the viewer into views of the archaeological remains below. Unusual when it was done, this was the harbinger of a whole new form of interpretation and wayfinding that helped replace the familiar bronze lettered sign and National Park Service wayside.

They also use plaques on the sidewalk. I have always liked sidewalk interpretation. It takes advantage of where most people are looking when they walk, and it gives you the foundation of a haptic understanding of history.

There are also the graphic signs one finds in many cities that use text and some imagery. We saw several in Society Hill, a neighborhood preserved in the era of urban renewal, including this sign in front of the Physick House, commemorating the pioneering surgeon and inventor of soda pop.

And also this one to Edmund Bacon, the modernist city planner who reshaped Philadelphia in the postwar era and authored the 1970 book Design of Cities that epitomized the renewal approach so many cities used in the era of thinking big, planning big, and demolishing big.

Society Hill was a combination of preservation and renewal, with highrises and infill townhomes. Like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago, it also had its Freak Street, which was and is South Street, a counterculture mecca.

South Street was distinct from the tony townhomes once occupied by Revolutionary War luminaries like Thaddeus Kozcziusko and James Madison on their quiet, cherry-blossom-lined streets, a place that was all about the middle-class values driving both urban renewal, preservation and sprawl in the second half of the American century.

Another fascinating site of interaction is the “Rocky” statue, outside the Classical Museum of Art, but not allowed to occupy the entrance pedestal its namesake movie character occupied some 33 years ago. Still, it has become a site of pilgrimage, if not as dignified as those of our Founding Fathers, it is certainly popular as queues form for people to take their photos with a statue not of a general or statesman, but an actor playing a boxer.

So, you can read the signs, see the plaques on the street celebrating items present, past and both together, tour the national parks with park rangers, see actors recreating Benjamin Franklin and dozen of other denizens, and even enjoy the preservation delights of the late 20th century: landmarks of architectural history and historic districts that utilize preservation (or, we should say, heritage conservation) as a community planning tool. The historic interpretation of Philadelphia spans the range of techniques, media, styles and forms and very, very much of its works. Heck, they even have the “Ducks” I thought only made sense in the Wisconsin Dells.

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3 Responses to “Interpreting Philadelphia”

  1. redisaac Says:

    I remember visiting Philadelphia years ago and learning about the battle over that Rocky statue. I realize he was a fictional character, but it was still pretty iconic. Does the museum feel it would cheapen the experience of the art museum if large crowds were running up the stairs and taking photos next to the statue all the time? I wonder if it would increase their yearly draw.

  2. preservegreen Says:

    I have friend who moved to Philly who regularly shame me for not visiting, using the architecture and history as leverage. After seeing these pics and reading this post, my shame has doubled. Time for a trip.

  3. Sabra Smith Says:

    I’d also point to the Philadelphia bus shelters that use the opposite side of the transit map to enhance the sense of place, showing a historic photo and describing what is/was once on that block. The signage program recently won an award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and is the subject of a recent exhibit at the Center for Architecture:

    “This year’s Preservation Month Reception and Panel Presentation highlights the exhibit Ride!Philadelphia, which will be on display at the Center for Architecture throughout the month of May. Featuring nearly 75 posters that were created by the Center City District as an educational signage component at bus stops throughout Center City, the display provides information about the history of various street intersections.”

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