A Walk Through Old Philadelphia

It’s easy to fall in love with Philadelphia. Whether you live in this City of Brotherly Love or just plan to visit, the more you walk its streets and absorb its energy, the more your fondness grows.

Philadelphia, whose skyline is an architectural maze of 20th-century buildings side by side with historic structures, is the second largest city on the East Coast. With a metropolitan population of 5 million, it ranks fourth in the nation.

The city was founded in 1682 by the English Quaker William Penn. Since its beginnings, Philadelphia has shifted from its original role as the birthplace of democracy to bustling port for industry to a contemporary center for arts and culture. Visitors to Philadelphia will find that here the old successfully coexists with the new: The famed, red LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana (erected in 1976 at John F. Kennedy Boulevard and North 15th Street in the heart of Center City), for instance, sits not far from the circa-1864 Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul; and “The Family,” an outdoor sculpture erected in 1981 at North 18th and Market streets, stands near the 548-foot-high City Hall which was completed at the turn of the century.

Penn designed Philadelphia with pedestrians in mind, and walking is still an ideal way to see its sights. The city is divided into quadrants, with historic City Hall, a grandiose granite and white marble structure, at its center where Broad and Market streets intersect. Each area is situated around a public square: to the northeast is Franklin Square; to the southeast, Washington Square in Society Hill; to the southwest, Rittenhouse Square; and to the northwest, Logan Square on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Philadelphia’s cultural centers are also easy to visit on foot. Southwest of City Hall, near posh Rittenhouse Square, are clusters of galleries and shops; northwest is Fairmount Park, home to the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, perched atop the sloping banks of the Schuylkill River; southeast lies trendy South Street and the Delaware River waterfront; and to the northeast is Old City, bordered by Market and Vine Streets, a former warehouse district that has of late become a haven for contemporary art galleries and artists’ studios.

Center City Sights

Center City plays host to many tourist attractions, among them the Reading Terminal Market, which neighbors the new $522 million Pennsylvania Convention Center; the stretch of Pine Street known as Antiques Row; and the tony Walnut Street shopping district bordering Rittenhouse Square.

While touring Center City, a visitor can’t go wrong in dropping by the Reading market (at North 12th Street between Filbert and Arch) to shop for fragrant herbs, fresh breads and gourmet takeout napped in sauces. After a stop at the market, head south for a window-shopping stroll through Pine Street’s antiques stores and restaurants, or consider a walk on Walnut Street which pulses with on-the-go shoppers, business people heading for appointments and cabbies picking up fares. When you need a break, tour the park at genteel Rittenhouse Square (named after a Revolutionary patriot), which is surrounded by historic buildings, luxury high-rise apartments and exclusive stores.

Visitors to Philadelphia can also spend hours, or days, in Fairmount Park – 8,700 acres of green space that includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a magnificent structure on a hill, which is just a few blocks from the Rodin on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Art Museum, originally the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, was chartered in 1876. The museum’s neoclassical building was based on designs by Horace Trumbauer, C.L. Borie and C.C. Zantzinger and opened in 1925.

Other sites within the park include the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest in the country; a Japanese house and garden, historic buildings and monuments, outdoor theaters and Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River where spirited crew races are held. The Victorian-style boathouses, now owned by colleges and private clubs, are outlined in white lights and there are few sights as serene as a glimpse of the haloed boathouses reflecting off the river against an inky night sky.

A trip to Philadelphia wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt to South Street, which, through a continual series of renaissances that stretch back over 20-plus years, seems to just keep reinventing itself. This bohemian enclave is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city and a hangout for “starving” artists, starving students and people starving for attention. “South Street is a free-spirit area shared by artists, skinheads, bikers, family-run stores, upscale restaurants and Main Line matrons,” says Diane Dalto, director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. “It is an open-minded and tolerant area.”

On South Street, within walking distance of Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River, bistro managers compete with frycooks who make Philly cheesesteaks (and for health-conscious eaters, “chicken” cheesesteaks), while gallery directors offer their wares in the shadow of skateboard shops. South Street is just one block south of Society Hill, an upscale residential area of 17th- and 18th-century townhouses.

Another popular spot in Philadelphia is Old City, an area some consider a microcosm of Philadelphia because it reveals how the city has shifted away from its blue-collar past. “Old City mirrors the city,” says Rick Snyderman who owns Snyderman Gallery on Cherry Street. “It’s a concourse for all kinds of places and people.”

In Old City, wholesale equipment businesses operate next to avant-garde galleries, and old factories converted into condos stand adjacent to lawyers’ and bankers’ lofts. Sidewalks are shared by students toting backpacks, women walking well-groomed dogs and construction workers looking for places to eat.

“Philadelphia is going through an extraordinary renaissance intellectually, artistically and culturally,” Snyderman says. “There is a positive sense in the city right now, a connection between economics, culture and tourism and a reexamination of how we put them to use.”

Avenue of the Arts

In the early ’80s, then-mayor Wilson Goode and other art advocates began pushing to draw more attention to Philadelphia’s art offerings. That platform was adopted and strengthened by his successor, Edward Rendell, and today art enthusiasts, officials and artists continue to market their city, according to Dalto. Philadelphia’s art scene is a colorful and eclectic mix of public institutions, academic forums and private arenas.

One of the city’s newest attractions is a revitalization of the Avenue of the Arts, stretching from Broad Street at Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, past Temple University, City Hall, the Academy of Music and The University of the Arts straight on to South Philadelphia at Broad and Washington.

Torches in front of the historic Academy of Music light the night sky, providing the ambiance for other longtime complexes such as The University of the Arts’ Merriam Theater (where, as the old Shubert Theater, greats such as Ethel Merman and Laurence Olivier performed), but they also illuminate an area with new art venues. Those established just a few years back include the Arts Bank, a multi-use theater facility for dance and drama; the Brandywine Workshop for graphic arts; and the Clef Club, a place where jazz devotees can attend performances or visit archives and a library.

The city is also home to several art schools: Moore College of Art and Design, The University of the Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science. Many contemporary artists who were trained in Philadelphia have achieved prominence, including Gary Griffin, John McQueen, Bruce Metcalf, Albert Paley, and Paula and Robert Winokur.

American craft has also found pride of place in Philadelphia: the annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, marking its 20th anniversary in November, and the Philadelphia Furniture Show, held in May and now in its second year, are indicative of how the city is connecting craftspeople and the public. It is something entrepreneurs such as craft gallery owners Ruth Snyderman (who runs The Works Gallery on South Street) and Helen Drutt English (who presides over Helen Drutt: Philadelphia on Walnut Street) have been doing for a while.

In the ’60s, for example, English (who studied art history and studio painting at the Tyler School of Art) formed an organization through which professional craftspeople and supporters could network. “When I became interested in crafts, there was no National Endowment for the Arts, no craft history courses, no historical perspective,” English recalls. “I was interested in crafts so I developed myself by reading and learning. When I first saw contemporary craft, it was totally out of the realm of my understanding. Who were these people weaving, these people potting? I didn’t have that information and I didn’t know people were working in Philadelphia (in this genre). … I was drawn to the crafts because they were functional and made by hand instead of by machine. I was drawn to the spirit of the individuals making unique pieces.”

“The contemporary craft movement in this country did have beginnings in Philadelphia,” Snyderman explains. Her husband Rick (of Snyderman Gallery City) points out that in the ’60s people began exploring the functional and decorative elements of craft, and Philadelphia provided forums for a movement which continues today – its effects seen throughout the city in both public and private settings. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a diverse collection of 20th-century crafts includes vessels by Toshiko Takaezu and Peter Voulkos; jewelry by Olaf Skoogfors and Richard Hoffman Reinhardt; sculptural creations by Albert Paley and Wendell Castle; and glass pieces fashioned by Dale Chihuly and Howard Ben Tré.

“This is a city with a strong arts community,” says English, who opened one of the first craft galleries in the United States. “There are nationally and internationally known artists who have chosen to live and exhibit in Philadelphia, who have chosen not to go to New York.” At 1721 Walnut Street in Center City, English shows the works of distinguished, Philadelphia-based artists such as Jill Bonovitz, Nancy Carman, William Daley, Bruce Metcalf, Lizbeth Stewart, Rudolf Staffel, and Paula and Robert Winokur.

Center City is also the site for other galleries. Within walking distance of English’s gallery is the Janet Fleisher Gallery on South 17th Street. The gallery displays works by self-taught artists but has become known for its exhibition of the Philadelphia Wireman sculptures found abandoned on the street on trash night sometime in 1982, according to gallery director John Ollman. The creator of the shamanistic pieces, which are made out of everyday items such as batteries, pens, barrettes, rubberbands, bolts, nails, coins, foil and tools, remains unknown. Other galleries in Center City include the Newman Galleries, Schmidt/Dean Gallery and The More Gallery, Inc.

Philadelphia’s Old City is another hotbed for galleries. This section – once the center of manufacturing and commerce in Philadelphia – has undergone a decade-long restoration and now there are dozens of new galleries there. Old City is the location for art venues such as Snyderman Gallery, a renovated space where photography, contemporary narrative paintings, glass pieces and sculptures are displayed in a setting that, against a backdrop of architectural details dating to 1866, boasts modern white walls and a high ceiling. The area is also home to the Rosenfeld and Larry Becker galleries; to The Clay Studio, an earthy, nonprofit arts organization; and to the multicultural Painted Bride Art Center.

Voice for All Venues

Cutting-edge art institutions can also be found in Philadelphia: The Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania (in University City) is credited with being the first public museum, in 1965, to show Andy Warhol’s works as well as to later organize the controversial 1988 exhibit showing the works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Another is The Fabric Workshop and Museum, founded 18 years ago by Marion Boulton Stroud. The workshop, in Center City, collaborates with emerging as well as national and international artists to create new work in fabric and other materials, and has worked with such acclaimed artists as Robert Kushner, Betty Woodman, Roy Lichtenstein, Mona Hatoum, Louise Borgeois and Chris Burden. Creations have run the gamut from inspirational to haunting, as in the case of Robert Morris, who put black ink on a skeleton to impose images on fabric for his “Restless Sleepers.”

Philadelphia, too, is a place where nonprofits promote their causes. One is the Wood Turning Center, an organization devoted to the education, preservation and promotion of lathe-turned objects. Albert LeCoff directs the center, which is located in historic Germantown, and touts the skills surrounding the creation of lathe-turned objets d’art. “We are fortunate to be in Philadelphia,” explains LeCoff, who is an educator and craftsman. “There are major events held here to cultivate the crafts and the knowledge and appreciation of them. Craft begs interaction. There are a number of senses involved. It is made by my hands and for my hands.”

Faces of the City

On a brisk sunny morning, a door swings open and leads to the unassuming Clay Studio on North Second Street and past an immense tile mural by Isaiah Zagar that is a flash of color. Inside the building, a visitor finds freight elevators, seemingly rickety flights of stairs, avant-garde works in progress and rooms – including one with a wall lined with AIDS prayers and drawings – that seem to come out of nowhere. They are all images associated with big cities and they serve as a reminder of how diverse Old City as well as Philadelphia is. In Philadelphia, art is being given a variety of stages – from the well-established (the Rodin, the Philadelphia Museum of Art) – to the nouveau.

A day earlier, we’d been in a restaurant/deli with checkerboard floors and black tables in Old City grabbing a lunch of peppery broccoli soup and hummus that made our mouths water. Paintings by a local artist adorned the establishment’s walls. We couldn’t decide if we liked these acrylics on canvas, but we were convinced that the mixture of inexpensive food and home-grown art provided insight into how Philadelphia is providing space for fledgling artists. Weeks later, I was back in Old City and I got another view of this area whose dichotomies abound: We had just visited Subculture Gallery, a space exhibiting black rubber sculptures and suspended laminated bras; minutes later, we turned off Second Street and ambled into historic Elfreth’s Alley, a row of quaint 18th-century homes, which was named after blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth.

This same day I also returned to Pine Street and passed M. Finkel & Daughter and my memory was jolted: I recalled the day I’d visited the shop which features a collection of antique American samplers, needlework and quilts displayed in rooms filled with period furniture. I remembered the rich smells and the way my fingers wanted to caress the tapestries. Part of my visits to Philadelphia relied on the tactile. At the Wood Turning Center, my hands glided across the curves of incredible coffee-colored vessels. At The Fabric Workshop, which is huge and lined with tables where artists complete silk screens, I walked barefoot on a silicone-rubber rug.

At the store American Pie on South Street, I relished what my eyes saw: the showcase of handmade whimsical mobiles and wooden works, the exotic goblets and jewelry, the Judaica. Also on South Street, I passed by a tree with rows of chewed, aged gum stuck to its bark while a Beastie Boys song spilled from a vintage clothing store. At the Zipperhead store, a post-punk survivor, I watched a pet tarantula that was caged in front of a backdrop of leather goods. And in Fairmount Park, I was intrigued by everything I saw, including the waterworks. While in many other cities these are just another industrial eyesore, Philadelphia’s turbines are housed in a breathtaking neoclassical structure built in the 1800s.

My most recent trip took place last winter, when visiting the nearly deserted Fairmount Park seemed ethereal as the boathouses glittered and an iced-over hill in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art became a playground for young sledders. And though I enjoyed the peace and the white blanket of snow, I found myself yearning for azaleas and for the signs of life I knew the coming spring would bring.

And I started planning for my return.

Published in the Spring 1996 edition of AmericanStyle

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