In the spring of 1799, the city of Philadelphia, PA was bureaucrat heaven. The State, Local and Federal governments were for the most part sharing the same space, and the their constituent parts were lodged in every nook and cranny of downtown Philly. Politicians from every conceivable level were walking the streets and 18th century lobbyists were waiting behind every corner waiting to pounce.
But then, almost suddenly, the city was abandoned. First the Pennsylvania government decided they needed more space and they moved to Lancaster in the middle of the summer. Then, in 1800, the Feds moved to Washington, and Philadelphia was left with only its local pols, and a pressing need with some other industry to fuel its economy.
That the city did, but the few blocks around Chestnut street continued to hold the remains of what was at one time the center of the American universe.
It was here at the old State House, on the first floor, that the Second Continental Congress, decided to declare themselves a thing called the United States of America in 1776. Then ten years later, the same Congress, now located in New York, endorsed the creation of a heretofore-illegal convention to replace the ramshackle constitution that had been in effect since 1781, and suggested holding it in the empty lower floor of the Pennsylvania State House.
But in 1801 no one really cared all that much about historic preservation, and the place became a warehouse, then an art school, then Charles Wilson Peale’s museum, which was meant to be Philly’s answer to P. T. Barnum’s in New York.
Peale’s Museum was thrown out when it was decided the building was too venerable, and became a more dignified public space, before being turned into a shrine in 1876.
Today, while it’s been restored to it’s 1787 glory; one cannot help but be a bit sad that the top floor, which is where the rangers give their talks, couldn’t have been redone to be a restoration of Peale’s museum. An ancient freak show would be a perfect antidote to the solemnity of the assembly hall on the ground floor.
While independence Hall itself, and Congress Hall next door, which was where the first few Congresses under the constitution met, are well done museums, much of which surrounds it is not.
The shrine to the Liberty Bell is downright vulgar, and a number of private museums in the immediate area, most notably the Museum of Liberty, are total rip-offs. The National Constitution Center is hideously expensive, and when I was there, the place was full of advertisements for an exhibit that had already closed.
On the other hand, the visitor’s center has a couple of nice movie theaters and a couple of decent exhibits, and the Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson impersonators are relatively entertaining.
One thing that they’re currently doing is rebuilding the mansion that was where the Presidential residence was. When I was a kid, the site was a public toilet. I thought then as now that the President living in a toilet was hilarious.
Independence Park is a UNESCO Would Heritage site, and deservedly so. The two seminal events that happened here are is why it’s essential.