Philly's Blue Plaque Special
Some recognise early America's history. (The Lewis & Clark Expedition, for example). Some detail history's key players. (Benjamin Frankin, not surprisingly, tops that roster). Others identify edifices where history played out -- even venues, like Eastern State Penitentiary, which have evolved into a standing monuments to infamy. Some are quirky. As in noting that Joseph Bonaparte, once the King of Spain under the European hegemony of his elder brother Napoleon, was a Philadelphian for two years, in 1815 and 1816. Who knew?
Thanks to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, more and more tourists -- as well as Philadelphia's homegrown history boffins -- are ditching their Frommer's for what has become the city's best free self-guided tour. Welcome to the state's Historical Marker Program, since 1946 a delightful, eclectic walkabout that combines serendipity, education and a large dose of 'Dang, I didn't know that!'
In all, the PHMC has scattered more than 1,700 metal, free-standing markers, colored in knock-out blue with gold lettering, around the Commonwealth, with almost 250 in Philadelphia alone. To the casual observer, the markers may underscore the obvious (yes, there's a marker at the Philadelphia Zoo) or provoke a wide yawn. (Do we really need to know that the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was invented at Penn, as noted on the university's West Philly campus? Um, I suppose so....)
My favourite markers are those that elicit surprise, laced with a dollop of odd-ball whimsy.'Behold!, they shout, as they snag you unexpectedly, diverting you from deep thoughts as you otherwise go on your merry way. You stop. You read. 'Dang, I didn't know that!'
That was my reaction recently at 46th and Market. '[American Bandstand] television program had a major impact on the music, dance, and lifestyles of American teenagers.... Until 1964 the show was broadcast from WFIL-TV here. This 1947 building was one of the first designed and constructed exclusively for television productions.'
As a baby-boomer, Bandstand was my introduction to rock 'n roll, dance, and cool chicks. (Mary Venrazi, where are you now, you minx of the dance floor?) Sure, I knew Dick Clark was host. I knew the show came to us live each afternoon from Philly. (This, even though I was living elsewhere).
But on this day, I stopped in my tracks. You mean Dick Clark, that Dick Clark, and all those cute babes from West Catholic High and St. Maria Goretti actually strode through these very doors. I gave that marker a '10,' and, using Mary Venrazi's highest accolade, an 'easy to dance to.'
Other markers favor early American history, and are mostly spread out, naturally enough, in Old City and Society Hill. Check out where Thomas Paine's Common Sense was first published (South 3rd Street, near the Ritz 5). The first Republican National Convention was held at 808 Locust, now a converted condo. Sure, Fraunces Tavern is famous in Lower Manhattan. But there was one in Philly, too, at 310 South 2nd. Turns out that owner-chef Samuel Fraunces followed George Washington here, and was the president's chief cook from 1790-94. Dang, I didn't know that!
Check out African-American heritage: There's the first black Y (1724 Christian Street); an early black Baptist Church (nearby at 16th and Christian); and in South Philly, at 6th and Lombard, the site of Free African Society, a sort of 18th-century forerunner to the NAACP. Located at 915 Banbridge is the Institute for Colored Youth, a 19th-century trade school.
Lots of sports nostalgia: The site of the Baker Bowl National League Park (Broad and Lehigh), the site, in 1935, of the Bambino's last game; Connie's Mack's house at 604 Cliveden Street; and, in an update to 1960s, The Blue Horizon, the well-known boxing venue.
Professional entertainment gets its due with markers commemorating jazz singer Billie Holiday, at 1409 Lombard (she lived there); the home of jazz musician John Coltrane at 1511 North 33rd Street; the Pearl Baily house at 1946 North 23rd Street; the Paul Robeson house, 4951 Walnut; and, in Old City at 6th and Arch, the Barrymores, the prolific theatre family, though a later addition, Hollywood starlet Drew Barrymore, whose great-great grandparents, the Drews, who managed a theatre at the site, doesn't get a mention.
Philadelphia artists and writers include 18th-century artist Charles Wilson Peale (3rd and Lombard), some of whose works are in the Academy of the Fine Arts (it has a marker, too); Louisa May Alcott, frequently associated with Massachusetts, who actually drew her first breath at 5427 Germantown Avenue; tenor Mario Lanza, whose real name, we learn from a marker at 634 Christian, was Alfredo Cocozza; author Owen 'You better smile when you say that' Wister (5203 Germantown); and Philadelphia's most famous painter Thomas Eakins, the subject of a recent hubbub over his work The Gross Clinic, who maintained a house and studio at 1729 Mount Vernon.
Quirky? How about going 'bottoms up, at the site where 'America's First Lager' was brewed at 455 St. John Street, around Northern Liberties? Or checking out the site where 'Girl Scout cookies' were first baked and sold at 1401 Arch Street? Just in case you're not sure, the PHMC also reminds where we are. 'Philadelphia,' a marker at Broad and JFK.
If there's a leitmotif to most of Philly's markers, it's that the city's greatest fame and its great native sons who shaped Philadelphia's stature are long past -- way long past. It's a has-been history that abruptly stops short in the early 20th century.
I found two exceptions: the Church of the Advocate, at 18th and Diamond, where, in 1974, the first female Episcopal priests were ordained; and, two, the site, at 6th and Chestnut, of early gay rights demonstrations, even before the better-known Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York. Otherwise the markers are mostly American History:101.
Thankfully, we can have a hand in changing that. Anyone, in fact, can nominate anyone. A panel of 'independent experts' then rule. Submissions usually close each year in December or January. Details are available at www.phmc.pa.us.
For starters, the PHMC should be considering some of the sites throughout the city that the national Society for Professional Journalists has already recognized with independent plaques. Places, say, like the birthplace and home of 19th-century adventurer and Boer War reporter Richard Harding Davis; the publication site of Godey's Lady's Book, America's first women's magazine; and the HQ of the late publisher Cyrus Curtis. (His former office and in-town apartment in the Curtis Center is now part of Italian consulate). How about the Pen & Pencil Club, the nation's oldest watering hole for hacks, a venue that, as far as I know, isn't on anyone's short list -- at least, not yet?
Otherwise, anyone for Will Smith? Bill Cosby? Genos? Pat's? John O'Hara? Or, my personal favorite John F. Street? (Just kidding).
(This article first appeared in the Weekly Press of 30 July).