Poe and Peale and Publick Places

Thursday, April 19, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 36

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania— After two missed opportunities to visit homes occupied at various times by Edgar Allan Poe, the involvement of the National Park Service as caretaker convinced us to see the Poe House in Philadelphia today.  During the six years he lived in Philadelphia, Poe authored such classic tales as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
The museum incorporates the small house Poe rented as well as a neighboring house. Several interactive exhibits about Poe's life and work fill the rooms of the adjunct house, while the rooms of the Poe house are unfurnished.  The ranger on duty was quite enthusiastic about Poe and his life and work and wanted to share every detail.  We finally managed to escape, just as we thought we heard a muffled heartbeat coming from below the floorboards of the historic house.

Walking toward the Betsy Ross residence, we came across Elfreth's Alley.  Often called our nation's oldest residential street, the alley dates back to the early 1700s.  By the first part of the twentieth century, the area had fallen victim to urban decay, and several houses were facing demolition until a resident organized an effort to forestall the wrecking ball.  Since 1702, more than 3,000 people have called the alley home.  Today 32 houses line the alley and form a uniquely preserved early American residential street.

Elfreth's Alley
After strolling the alley and logging in to a nearby letterbox, we arrived at Betsy's place just as a large contingent of Japanese tourists and a sizable invasion of school children swarmed into the courtyard.  Since historically it is unlikely that Betsy Ross ever actually lived there and almost certain that she didn't sew the original flag at that spot, we quickly determined that we could skip this favorite Philadelphia tourist spot.

Two blocks west, we stumbled across at Christ Church Burial Ground.  Founded in 1695 as the first parish of the Church of England (Anglican) in Pennsylvania, Christ Church later became America's original Episcopal church.  As the congregation grew, a new property was purchased on the outskirts of town in 1719.  Part of the two-acre parcel was reserved as a burial ground, eventually becoming the final resting place for more than 4,000 members of the church.   Sadly, the original inscriptions on most of the soft marble markers have faded with time, and today most graves have blank headstones.

Christ Church Burial Ground
Benjamin Franklin and his family are here in a humble grave, as well as four additional signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Soon after his burial, admirers began paying their respects to "Poor Richard" by leaving pennies on his grave, recalling one of Poor Richard's most famous maxims:  A penny saved is a penny earned.  An epitaph written by Franklin as a young man was not used on his grave but appears on a plaque nearby.

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And Stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost,
For it will as he believ'd
appear once more
In a new and more elegant Edition
Corrected and improved
By the Author.

Just a block east of Franklin's grave, a nine-foot bust watches over Arch Street next to a firehouse.  This is not just any firehouse, but Engine 8, which is a descendent of the Union Fire Company, America's first fire department, a subscription venture founded by Franklin and his friends in 1736.


Commissioned by the city to replace a 1971 acrylic sculpture which had deteriorated beyond repair, the new bust, by sculptor James Peniston, incorporates casts of thousands of old keys that school children donated for the project.

Colonel Uriah Levy statue at Mikveh Israel
We stopped for a brief visit at the historic district's Mikveh Israel synagogue, founded in the 1740s.  Describing the congregation as the "oldest continually operating synagogue" in America, a congenial member-guide invited us in and provided the brief tour we requested.  Though a few historical artifacts were in evidence, we were a bit disappointed to see the very modern 1976-era sanctuary with its plain lines and stark furnishings expecting something more like the beautiful neo-gothic synagogue of Savannah's Mickve Israel congregation founded in 1733.

Mikveh Israel sanctuary
From the synagogue we followed the example of John Adams and headed to City Tavern for a bite to eat.  When Adams arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 to attend the First Continental Congress, a Philadelphian introduced him to City Tavern, not quite a year old and already the social center for locals and visitors.  Today we enjoyed a historical meal in a meticulous reconstruction of this tavern near Independence Mall.

City Tavern
Servers were dressed in period costume, and the menu featured cuisine authentic to 18th century America.  When we heard that the menu focused on period foods, we were expecting exclusively meat entrees. What a great surprise to learn that Ben Franklin had written a letter from London in 1770 explaining how to make tofu!  The food was quite good, and a buy-one-get-one-free coupon in the National Park Service newsletter sweetened the bill.

Philadelphia Exchange
Near the tavern, we walked past the Philadelphia Merchants Exchange, a spectacular 1834 Greek Revival building that served as an early center of commercial and financial activities as well as America's first stock exchange.  Today it provides grand offices for the National Park Service.  Our next stop was one of the highlights of the day, if not of our visit to Philadelphia.

Second Bank of the U.S.
Completed in 1824, the Second Bank of the United States housed the fledgling republic's short-lived central bank until Andrew Jackson let the charter lapse on the unpopular institution in 1836.  Later the building was employed as a customs house until 1934.  Acquired by the National Park Service in 1974, the building now serves as home to portraits of famous Americans in the early republic.  Painted by Charles Wilson Peale and his family of artists from live sittings, the portraits include most of the founding fathers as well as other movers and shakers of the period.

Peale Portraits
A famous artist and portraitist in his time, Peale opened the first museum in America to hold portraits he had created, as well as specimens from his natural history collection.  His portraits had a distinctive format— realistic, life size, bust length, with a dark, empty background to focus attention on the subject's real appearance— no wigs or powdered hair here.

Peale portraits of Martha Washington, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson
Peale was assisted in his portraiture by his brother James, and his sons Rembrandt and Raphaelle, whom he trained.  Their subjects were among the most distinguished Americans of the day.  In his emphasis on realism and accuracy, Peale's portraits flattered no one.  "Let them have truth!" he stated, at a time when other portrait artists romanticized their subjects' appearance to please the buyer and ensure payment. 

After popping into Congress Hall for the ranger talk and tour of the original meeting place for the U.S. Congress, we visited the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall.  Established in 1976 by members of the Mikveh Israel synagogue, the museum tells the story of the American Jewish experience, presented over three floors, each illuminating a distinctive historical period from 1645 to today.  Though there are tributes to famous citizens such as Einstein and Spielberg, most exhibits focus on the everyday lives of average Jews and the liberty they found in America.

Exhibit on late 19th century Jewish immigration to America
In keeping with this mission, Jewish visitors to the museum are invited to tell their own story of their family heritage in a two-minute video.  The videos are on display in the museum and on the institution's web site (www.nmajh.org).  Those who don't have the opportunity to visit in person can upload a written verion of their family story with photo on the web site.

Exhausted and well-saturated in history, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel to rest up for one last day of Philadelphia touring tomorrow.

More Photos from Today

Some of the many nameless markers at Christ Churchyard
Graves of Franklin, his wife and two of his children
Detail from Peniston's bust of Benjamin Franklin
Edgar Allan Poe house
Reading Room at Poe Historic Site, designed by NPS in line with Poe's tongue-in-cheek essay on furniture
Elvis has left the building and joined the Little Tramp at Mr. Bar Stool.