It was embarrassing. I had been away from my native Philadelphia for 12 years, only to come back as, dare I say it, a tourist. Like a lot of natives, when it came to my hometown, I was a blasé procrastinator. I felt I would, at some mythological point, have time to experience all the city had when life wasn’t getting in the way. And then I moved, without ever finding the time. As my train pulled into 30th Street Station, my mouth dropped. There were towers that weren’t there before. Museums that hadn’t been there before. There was a whole city that hadn’t there before.
I had some catch-up to do.
Just to really drive home the point that it had been a long time—there was my hotel. In the old days, it used to be the PSFS bank building (you walk by the safe in the lobby), but now it’s the five-star Loews Hotel. For all its positives—prime central location! Fantastic cityscape views! The best hotel gym I have ever used!—this high-rise of hedonism stands out for having a restaurant waitstaff that is genuinely perky at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. After pounding down some smoked salmon and a few stiff green teas, I set out to see just how much of “my Philadelphia” was still intact.
Despite the fact that Philly is the fifth-largest city in the U.S., it feels like a small town, probably because the city is so “short.” A little history: While every other city on Earth tried to one-up the others with taller and taller buildings, a gentleman’s agreement kept all buildings in the City of Brotherly Love shorter than the hat on the statue of William Penn (the Colonial founder of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania) atop the 548-foot Philadelphia City Hall. With a great deal of hissy-fitting, that screeched to a halt in 1987 with the construction of the 945-foot One Liberty Place building and was blown to pieces in 2008 by the 974-foot Comcast Center, site of the largest LED screen on the planet at the time of its completion.
At 2,000 square feet, you’d think it’d be easy to spot. But when I walked in, I finally had to ask the security guard where the screen was. Boy, did I get a look. It was the entire wall behind her. It had been on a trompe l’œil screen saver and looked like an ordinary wall. Before my eyes, 20-foot flamenco dancers appeared out of thin air.
Feeling like a complete idiot, I slunk off to check out the one thing I knew would still be there: the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Designed to be Philadelphia’s Champs-Élysées, it is lined with some of the best museums in the city: the Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Rodin Museum, the brand-spanking-new Barnes Foundation (just moved in from the burbs) and the big mama, the Greek Revival titan that is the Philadelphia Museum of Art—that’s the one whose stairs Rocky Balboa ran up, and yes, I ran up. And did my little “Rocky Dance.” It’s a must.
The great thing about Philadelphia museums is that they rarely overlap each other’s turf: The Philadelphia Museum of Art more or less covers everything from the first century AD forward, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (not on the Parkway; it’s across the Schuylkill —“SKOO-kl”—River in the University City neighborhood) more or less the first century AD backward, with the other museums settling on specific themes, periods or people. The Franklin Institute is a science geek’s wet dream; the Academy of Natural Sciences is a fossil lover’s orgy. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia’s answer to the Frick or Getty, is mostly post-Impressionist. The Rodin is nothing but Rodin and has the most examples of his sculpture outside Paris, including The Gates Of Hell. I thought it was the actual entrance to the museum. Considering its name, it was a relief to find it’s not.
For more on Philadelphia, check out the rest of “Taking Liberties” in the May Issue of Instinct—out now!