Traveling

The Philadelphia Story

Richard Burnett
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There I was in Revolutionary America’s most genteel tavern, the City Tavern in Philadelphia, with a motley crew of travel journalists checking out the birthplace of the United States, when suddenly they raised their champagne flutes and toasted my birthday.

“Holy mackerel!” I said, delighted.

Established in 1773, the great and near-great of the American Revolution – including General Charles Lee and George Washington – dined and drank at the City Tavern and, by the time I arrived, the joint was selling “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce” based on Benjamin Franklin’s recipe while he was the U.S. Ambassador to France.

I stuck to the champagne.

The City Tavern is an indispensable stop on the Historic Philadelphia tour that covers just one square mile in the Old City, the area between Front to 7th Streets and Spruce to Race Streets. America’s most sacred historic sites – Liberty Bell and Philly’s red-brick Independence Hall where George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the U.S. Continental Army, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was adopted – stand alongside world-class museums such as the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is just couple blocks away from the National Constitution Center.

Here, every stone speaks, none more than Benjamin Franklin’s grave in the Christchurch burial ground just off Philly’s historic Independence Mall. Few folks remember that in 1775 Franklin stayed in Old Montreal’s Château Ramezay – then the Canadian headquarters of the American Revolutionary Army (today located across the street from Montreal City Hall) – when Franklin tried to persuade Montreal to join the revolution.

After you check out his grave, you may want that “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce” (based on Franklin’s own recipe) at the City Tavern after all.

But Philly isn’t just about history and booze – I drank copious amounts of vodka and locally-brewed Yuengling lager in glorious watering holes in Philly’s compact but vibrant “gayborhood” – no, the fifth-largest city in America is also one of the greatest art cities on the continent.

Here are some highlights you must not miss if you’re planning to visit Philadelphia in the coming months:

MAYA 2012: Lords of Time is in the midst of its world premiere at the incredible 125-year-old Penn Museum (check out their permanent eye-popping Ancient Egypt wing) capitalizes on the current fascination with the year 2012, comparing predictions of a world-transforming apocalypse with their supposed origins in the ancient Maya civilization. It leads visitors on a journey through the Maya’s time-ordered universe, expressed through their intricate calendar systems, and the power wielded by their divine kings, their “lords of time.” Explore the Maya world through interactive experiences and walk among sculptures and full-sized replicas of major monuments while uncovering the truth behind these apocalyptic predictions. The exhibition features more than 150 objects and artifacts, and runs through January 13, 2013.

James A. Michener Art Museum is located in Doylestown in Bucks County – just a short drive outside Philadelphia – and houses the finest collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist painters anywhere. Edward Redfield, Fern Coppedge, Daniel Garber and other artists of the Bucks County school are well-represented here, including Garber’s famed mural, A Wooded Watershed.

The Barnes Foundation – whose “priceless” art collection is worth billions and features 181 Renoirs, 46 Picassos, 69 Cézannes and 59 Matisses (including his Spirit of Life, worth an estimated $100-million) – moved from its former suburban location in Merion, Pennsylvania, into its new 93,000-square-foot building in downtown Philadelphia at the corner of 20th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway this past spring. Art lovers worried and complained that the new digs wouldn’t be up to snuff, but the architects have perfectly recreated the old Barnes museum and I think Dr .Albert C. Barnes (who made his fortune when he and Herman Hille developed Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness) would be proud.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of masterpieces in this astounding collection, which is why my favourite painting is by local Philadelphian Harry Sefarbi, who died at the age of 92 in September 2009. Decades earlier when Sefarbi was a young man, Dr. Barnes bought one of his paintings and hung it above the door in Room 9, which is packed with priceless Renoirs.

“Until the day Harry died,” museum director Andrew Stewart told me, “we’d sometimes see him visit the museum and just sit there [in Room 9, awed] his painting hung next to those of so many masters.”

The Rodin Museum stands next door to the Barnes, at 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. After extensive renovations. The museum re-opened in mid-July 2012 and boasts over 120 of the French master’s sculptures – the largest collection of his works outside of Paris. The greatest hits of the famed 19th-century sculptor are all here, including bronze casts of Eternal Springtime, The Gates of Hell, The Burghers of Calais and, of course, The Thinker, which sits outside in the museum’s beautiful gardens.

These art institutions are just the tip of the iceberg in a city packed with world-class museums, notably the mammoth Philadelphia Museum of Art and its famed ‘Rocky” steps. Philly is also breaking ground for yet another new museum, the red-brick, classically-styled Museum of the American Revolution which is being constructed on the site of the former visitor center for the 1976 bicentennial. The museum is slated to open in 2015.

Meanwhile, the next time I’m in Philly I’m going to visit the very spot where local legend Chubby Checker – born Ernest Evans and raised in the projects of South Philadelphia – recorded The Twist, ranked the most popular single from the first 50 years of Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.

“We recorded that song at 1405 Locust Street on the 14th floor,” Mr. Checker told me over coffee this past spring. “We recorded it at night time because we used the hallways as an echo chamber. It was very primitive. We didn’t know we were going to change the world.”

That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is. Or, as W.C. Fields once famously said, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadephia.”

WHERE TO STAY The Hotel Palomar Philadelphia (117 S. 17th Street) is a 24-story Kimpton property housed in the 80-year-old American Institute of Architects building. The Art Deco building preserves many of the building’s historic details and displays work by local and national artists, not to mention a funky lobby bar very popular with locals. A LEED Gold-certified hotel. Surf to www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com.

HOW TO GET THERE US Airways has daily service from Montreal to Philadelphia www.usairways.com.

MORE VISITOR INFO Surf to www.visitphilly.com. Curate your own Philly art experience at http://withart.visitphilly.com.


Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/montreal/pop-tart/.
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.