- Historic Sites
A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
There is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street, around which a great legal battle raged right after the Centennial because some of its neighbors objected to the sound of its bells. There is a drinking fountain in Fairmount Park with a marble figure of Moses striking water from the rock, erected by the Catholic Total Abstinence Union. There is the old Walnut Street Theatre that assorted eager-beaver presidential publicity agents from Washington, D.C., chose for the staging of the televised presidential “debate” in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, with the respective staffs hauling in carefully apportioned “audiences” who served as theatrical props, mechanically applauding now one candidate and then the other. In the true tradition of Philadelphia—remember the wreath that threatened Washington’s noble head?—an electrical failure cut off the sound toward the end of the debate, whereafter George Washington’s august successors stood for twenty-seven minutes numb and dumb, facing the nation (and the world) without saying a word, not daring to turn toward or to talk to each other; standing uneasily behind their lecterns, they looked as if they were unable to move because their trousers had fallen down. There is, even more recently, a statue of Sylvester Stallone, entitled Rocky. The producers of the movie succeeded in placing it in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After painful debating, a compromise was made: it was moved to the front of a sports stadium in South Philadelphia.
For nearly a hundred years the highest peak of the Philadelphia skyline was the big statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. There could be no taller building in Philadelphia, according to civic custom and tradition but not, alas, to law. Alas—because it has just been topped by an office skyscraper put together by an ambitious developer.
And yet, no matter how things would change—I wrote several years ago—Philadelphia would not lose its peculiar flavor: “the gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the respect for law would remain.” What George Orwell wrote about England during the storm of the Second World War may apply to Philadelphia: “an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” Even now.
A calendar of national events taking place in the bicentennial year appears elsewhere in this issue.
Travelers who visit Philadelphia in 1987 will be rewarded with a variety of special events designed to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution. The city began celebrating a year early with “Miracle at Philadelphia,” an exhibit that opened at the Second Bank of the United States on September 17, 1986. That exhibit will continue until December 31,1987, and future plans include the following:
A festival called “All Roads Lead to Philadelphia” will be held on Independence Mall, with colonial foods, crafts, and music. Visitors can attend mock trials and exercise their freedom of speech on a specially constructed soapbox.
Art Buchwald, the syndicated columnist, and Mark Russell, the comedian, will host a conference on political humor around the world. One of the topics under discussion will be the degree of freedom allowed political humorists under various national constitutions.
The U.S. Army Band will perform at Convention Hall, marching bands from all over the country will parade down Ben Franklin Parkway, and a food festival will be held at Penn’s Landing. On July 4, recalling Philadelphia’s place in aeronautical history (the first balloon flight in American took off from the city in 1793), hot-air balloons will lift off from the Museum of Art.
Both houses of Congress will meet in a pavilion on Independence Mall to commemorate the Great Compromise, in which the large and small states agreed on a bicameral legislature, with representation by population in the House and equal representation in the Senate. This will mark the first time in our history that Congress has convened outside the seat of government.
“Only in America,” a national arts festival, opens on Independence Mall, with jazz and folk music, sculpture and murals, and theater performances.
Philadelphia will celebrate its maritime heritage with a festival on the Delaware riverfront. On the twenty-second, the U.S. Navy will commission a new Aegis cruiser, the USS Thomas S. Gates, named for a Philadelphian who served as Secretary of the Navy from 1957 to 1959.
This is Constitution Day. In what is being billed as the largest parade ever in America, four separate processions will converge on Independence Hall. Among the floats will be a replica of The Federalist, the fifteen-foot miniature square-rigged vessel given to George Washington by Baltimore merchants in 1788.