Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s Historic Playgrounds

Smith Playhouse Exterior
No matter what, kids love to play. And if it’s in a historic spot, all the better. But these spaces take a lot of elbow grease and creative fundraising to remain safe and in repair. Transformation of an historical building into a child’s fun/learning zone takes even more.
Philadelphia’s kid-friendly, history-steeped playgrounds are Franklin Square, a once a neglected magnet for the homeless that boasts a sparkling carousel and a mini-golf homage to the city’s history; Victorian-era Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse which underwent a multi-stage restoration, including that of a much-loved treasure, the giant slide; and Please Touch Museum, the nation’s first children’s museum in Memorial Hall, originally the Art Pavilion during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
It may have been one of the three remaining green space squares that founding father William Penn designed for Philadelphia in the 1700s, but that didn’t mean it was always treated like an historic gem.
“Daycare workers used to clean away the drug paraphenalia in Franklin Square every morning before letting their charges use the playground,” says Amy Needle, CEO of Historic Philadelphia Inc.,founded in 1994 to promote tourism. Needle’s group, along with Fairmount Parks, is responsible for the 7.5-acre square’s rebirth.
Reopened in 2006, the square, which is a few blocks from Independence Mall at 6th and Race Streets, cost $6.5 million to renovate. It’s star attractions are a carousel painted with Philly scenes including boathouse row, a mini-golf game that features music by homegrown stars such as Patti Labelle, and food vendors with brotherly love staples such as soft pretzels.
The inclusion of Philadelphia Park Liberty Carousel, 36 feet in diameter and outfitted with 30 carved figures (including a sea dragon and eagle), is fitting since Philadelphia was once the carousel-making capital of the world. In the mid-19th century it was home to three manufacturers, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and D.C. Mueller & Bro. The carousel in the square today was made by Chance Morgan Co. in Wichita, Ka., using original moulds from the Dentzel Carousel Company and Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
Deep in East Fairmount Park is an imposing three-story Beaux-Arts mansion, built just for kids. Designed by architect James H. Windrim at the height of the late nineteenth century Play Movement, the 24,000-square-foot Playhouse opened in 1899 and has remained open ever since.circus_practice
Outside on the Playground’s six-and-a-half acres, is the Giant Wooden Slide —a 40-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, 10-foot-high covered maple slide that was installed in 1905 and fits up to twelve children abreast.PlayhouseSlidepictureJuly2003_005 “The slide is one of the most unique sights I’ve ever known. There has been an enormous affection for it for generations,” notes Hope Zoss, the site’s executive director.
In 2003, the Playground closed due to the equipment not being up to safety standards. With the help of a donation of $325,000 from a 92-year-old donor who had fond memories of the slide as a child, upgrades were made and it reopened in 2005, bearing her daughter’s name, the Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide.The second phase of improvement took place the following year with the installation of 18 swings. The Playhouse, which is aimed primarily at the under-five set, offers indoor activities such as riding tricycles through a child-sized “town,” and a puppet show theatre.
Richard and Sarah Smith (he was a wealthy Philadelphian who made his money in typesetting) built the site as a memorial to their son and as a country play haven for inner-city children. Since opening, it has drawn up to 1,000 visitors a day, from every income level. In 1977 it was listed on the City Historic Register.
Zoss notes that the Richard and Sarah Smith Trust of “two million dollars” is used for day-to-day operations and the funds for the improvements, estimated at “$10 million dollars,” are being raised through “individuals, foundations corporations and government agencies.”
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in West Fairmount Park after its inception as an Art Pavilion, served a few purposes, including headquarters for the Fairmount Park Commission. Its new role as the Please Touch Museum is far more playful.
The Beaux-arts building reopened in 2008 with 135,000 square feet of exhibits including a 40-foot high replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch created by artist Leo Sewell out of toys (the statue’s original arm and torch graced the 1876 exhibit), and a 1924 Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia carousel, on loan from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Originally, the carousel operated at Woodside Park, less than 10 blocks away. Additional exhibits include a flight fantasy area with propeller bike and flying machine and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with rabbit hole slide. Plus, there are other hands-on displays of inventions unveiled at the 1876 fair such as the typewriter and root beer.
Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark, was renovated according to standards set by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Of the museum’s $88 million budget (raised through government, individuals and corporations), $40 million went into building upgrades such as new windows. Much of the renovation involved removal of 1950s intrusions such as dropped ceilings.
“It was in good shape structurally when we got it. The soaring atrium is 150 feet tall and was concealed by walls that had been put in,” explains Willard Whitson, the museum’s vice president, exhibits and education. The decorative filigree and statuary uncovered around the atrium dome are in “wonderful condition,” says Whitson.
It’s a happy fact that history, when preserved and sprinkled with imagination, can deliver a whole lot of fun and learning for kids and adults alike. Technology might be making advances at the speed of sound, but Philly’s historic play havens prove that old fashion fun still has power for today’s kids.

Philadelphia: How does your garden grow?

schuylkillskylineI lived in Philadelphia 10 years ago and loved it. This year, I went back for the first time. I was nervous. Would it have changed? Would it have enough new (and old) places to explore and keep me busy? Yes, and yes. I visited some revamped gardens, chowed down on luscious heirloom tomatoes, quaffed craft brews, took a boat ride and screamed my head off at the annual Terror Behind the Walls Halloween experience at the Eastern State Penitentiary.
I’m happy to say Philly is still one of my favorite American cities. Why do I love it so much? The history goes deep, the people are open, the food is delicious and overall, the city provides good value for the visitor’s pocketbook.

Home base – Hotel Monaco Philadelphia
A Kimpton property, this hotel sits kitty-corner to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You can’t get a better location for exploring the old city by foot. Housed in the 1906 Lafayette Building, Hotel Monaco is full of whimsy, rooms inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and teapot shaped light fixtures in the elevator lobbies.monacoteapots2monacobed I breakfasted daily at the Red Owl Tavern, which dished up a mean frittata, crunchy granola with Greek yogurt and my favorite, cooked oatmeal with brown sugar and dried fruit.
GARDENS – Botanic, historic and beer!
Near the hotel were a number of historic gardens. Some were reinventions of what once was there, others were commemorative. We started in Independence Square, went to Franklin Court, Rush Garden, 18th Century Garden, Rose Garden, Magnolia Garden and Washington Square. Susan J. Edens (nice last name!), with the Independence National Historical Park, guided our group.

Less than 15 minutes from Center City Philadelphia and in the heart of a marginalized neighborhood, this is where botany first took root in America. We got there by boat, on the Patriot Harbor Cruise Line.bartramdockbartramhouse
The Bartram family is credited with identifying and introducing into cultivation more than 200 native plants including the rare and beautiful Franklinia alatamaha, named for family friend Ben Franklin. We toured the garden, saw the cider mill carved into riverside rock, marveled at an ancient gingko tree and took in the fresh air. No pesticides have ever been used in the garden. – bartramsgarden.org

This National Historic Landmark is in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Dating back to the 1820s, the Wyck Rose Garden is the oldest in America still growing in its original plan, with 50 varieties of old roses. Some were thought to be extinct until they were discovered at Wyck House.wyckrose3 The home farm was restored in 2007 and grows food for a weekly farmers’ market.wyckexterior It also provides an experimental outdoor classroom and perpetuates Wyck’s 300-year-old agricultural traditions. A house tour is highly recommended, since so many odd bits of family life have been wonderfully preserved over many generations. – wyck.org/garden
Across from the Liberty Bell, this 20,000-sq.-ft. outdoor drinking and eating space is in America’s most historic square mile. Seasonal with all-American food and drink such as pigs in a blanket, double-decker burgers, strawberry shortcake and beer from Victory, Deschutes, Yards, 21st Amendment and Fat Head. I enjoyed the Adirondack chairs, games, string lights and ivy-covered pergolas. – Phlbeergarden.com
Talula’s Garden, snugged in close to Washington Square, had a beautiful patio and sprawling interior. The owner is Aimee Olexy, who has a passion for farm-fresh ingredients locally sourced. My butternut squash risotto was amazing! talulacheesetalulapeachricottatalaluarisotto Olexy also founded Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. Her “Garden” venture is a partnership with local restaurateur Stephen Starr. – talulasgarden.com
Celebrating its 3rd years, the Delaware River Waterfront’s Spruce Street Harbor Park offered local beer and custom curated grab-and-go snacks served from converted shipping containers. The seasonal pop-up park has a hammock garden, arcade games, fountains and walk-on barges with lily pad water gardens. Fun! – Delawareriverwaterfront.com
At one time the Schuylkill River was more of an open sewer system and avoided by Philadelphian citizens. Although it’s all cleaned up now, in many ways it is still forgotten. That’s why a trip with Patriot Harbor Cruise Lines is helpful. I saw old railway bridges, ducks and cormorants, fisher folk and Philly’s striking skyline. After boarding at Walnut Street dock (at 25th Street), our guide pointed out interesting landmarks, including the former waterside Howard Johnson’s Hotel that was turned into a methadone clinic, then a halfway house, and now sits empty.hojomethadoneclinic This is why I love Philly. Offbeat history is preserved through a mixture of financial constraint and circumstance (i.e. no political will to tear down old buildings, and not quite the same condo development that is killing some cities –Toronto– these days.)
littleliondoorLITTLE LION
Had a cheese and veggie sandwich here. My appetite wasn’t quite huge enough for one, but Chef Monterray Keys told us where to get the best Philly cheese steaks. “We make a good one here, but Larry’s Steak is one of my favorites, as is Gooey Louie’s in South Philly and Max’s in North Philly.”littleliongrilledcheeselittlelionchef
This place has been in Old City for 15 years and is a highlight in the neighbourhood. Seasonal ingredients are a priority here. I had the seafood pasta and it rocked.fork-cooksforkseafoodpasta
readingcornman readingmktreadingpretzelgirlsreadingpig
Built as a train shed in 1893, Reading Terminal Market now houses 80 vendors selling everything from produce, to meat, fish, cheese and sweets. It is known for its Amish merchants who take great pride in their farm-fresh products. There are tons of places to pick up a quick meal, from cheese steaks to grilled cheese sandwiches, falafels, and more. Public seating is in the center, near the brass pig sculpture. – readingterminalmarket.org
Raspberry shrub! Back in the day when water was unfit to drink, Philadelphians would flock here for a shrub (simple fruit syrup, vinegar and a splash of alcohol) or beer. Revolutionary renditions of 18th century colonial fine dining were on the menu, including George Washington’s original recipe for ale. Servers were costumed, and well versed in the historic fare they presented. – citytavern.com
This gem of a restaurant was inside the historic Morris House Hotel and used locally sourced ingredients to create contemporary American dishes. There was a wedding the night I was there, but otherwise I would have sat at the lovely outdoor garden café. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson spent time at the Morris House with Robert Morris (not related to the owners), another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Whoa. What was that? Time to jump out of my skin. Animators were dressed in Broadway-ready makeup, asking if I wanted to be touched. What? Well, when in Rome…I nodded and ended up wearing a neon ring around my neck to alert possible staff touchers that it was OK with me. So did my travelling friend. It turned out to be nothing too onerous, sometimes a slap on the back, or ankle grabbing. But, scary when you’re not expecting it! I used to live right around the corner from Eastern State Penitentiary which was one of the largest and most expensive prisons in the world when it opened in 1829. Charles Dickens visited and gangster Al Capone was kept in a carpeted cell for a spell. Closed in the 1970s, it has become a tourist destination and along with the solitary cells you can often see art installations.terrortallmonsterterrortunnelterrornurse
This goes on for more than a month. Scary, but good fun. Lots of black lights, ghoulish inmates, creepy doctors and dentists, and even clowns! Make sure you check into the Speakeasy bar when you’re through. You’ll need a stiff drink before going back home. – easternstate.org

Philadelphia Museum of Art – 3rd largest art museum in the country, made famous in the movie Rocky when Rocky Balboa ascended the steps symbolizing victory of the underdog. philamuseum.org
Penn Museum – Nearly one million objects, including a 12-ton Egyptian sphinx. – penn.museum
Rodin Museum – Largest Rodin collection outside of Paris. The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, plus beautiful formal gardens. – rodinmuseum.org
The Barnes Foundation – Amazing collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Modigliani and more. barnesfoundation.org

Weirdness in Philly

Philadelphia has some of the most amazing and quirky museums. When I lived there, I had ample time to explore and I must say, the Mutter Museum, a medical museum of oddities, was one of my favorite. Old skulls, weird body parts in jars, a plaster cast of George Washington’s carbuncle (kind of like a boil) and a woman mummified in soap were just a few of the items that alternately mesmerized and freaked me out.MutterSoapWoman
If you are wracking your brain for destinations that will entertain teenage boys, this is it. Thousands of items on display span the medical realm, from the death cast of “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng to pieces of Albert Einstein’s gloriously nerdy brain. Filled with some impossible-to-believe specimens, the collections are still used to advance medical science today. 19 S. 22nd Street, (215) 560-8564.
• One of The Franklin Institute’s most popular exhibits, The Giant Heart is the largest walk-through heart in the country—it would be the perfect fit for a 220-foot-tall person. The area also includes a full-size surgical theatre recreation, complete with video effects that generate an in-action open-heart surgery; a musical cartoon about blood transport; a running skeleton; and crawl-through arteries.
• There’s an unsettling site near the entrance to the bookstore at Drexel University College of Medicine’s East Falls campus: What appears to be string art in the shape of a person is actually the dissected nervous system of an African-American woman who reportedly worked at the college and left her body to science in 1888. The school’s foremost anatomy professor at the time spent five months manually picking out every piece of bone and flesh from the cadaver, wrapping each strand of the nervous system in wet gauze as he went, and then allowed it to dry after pinning every nerve in its appropriate place. By appointment only. 2900 W. Queen Lane, (215) 991-8340.
• If a trip to the dentist seems like a painful chore, it’s worth letting one’s mouth go agape at the antique (and slightly terrifying) drills, chairs, X-ray machines, furnaces, photographs, pearl-handled tools and recreated Victorian office at the minute yet powerful Dr. and Mrs. Edwin Weaver III Historical Dental Museum. Visitors learn about more than 150 years of dentistry in America, as told through artifacts contributed by Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry faculty and alumni. 3223 N. Broad Street, (215) 707-2900.
• While hospitals are typically places to avoid, students of medical history favour tours of Pennsylvania Hospital, the first chartered hospital in the nation. Peering in the operating amphitheatre, visitors are reminded that early 19th-century surgeries were performed in front of an audience, with no electricity, no sterile technique and a choice of rum, opium or a “tap on the head with a mallet” for anesthesia. A seven-inch tumor removed during one such procedure by Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, dubbed the father of American surgery, is on view in the Historic Library. Self-guided tours available Monday through Friday; guided tours by appointment. 800 Spruce Street, (215) 829-3370.

Me, Ben and Philadelphia

At a recent event promoting Philadelphia, Ben Franklin let me in on a secret! Well, it was news to me. This summer, visitors can take advantage of a great overnight package deal which includes free hotel parking, free bike share passes and PHLASH bus passes. Philly is one of my all-time favorite American cities, having lived there a few years back. It’s an undervalued place that is packed with history, art and culture. I miss it like crazy Find out more about this summer’s deal.