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Following in His Footsteps: In the City That Ben Loved

4 minute read
Heather Won Tesoriero

Ben Franklin liked to think of himself first and foremost as a printer, and his imprint on his adopted hometown of Philadelphia hasn’t faded with the years. If you’re seeking to follow in his footsteps there, you can hear the music of the Colonial glass armonica he invented, visit places where he lived and even dine at his favorite tavern for a bite of Colonial turkey potpie.

A good place to start your visit is the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, which is positioned at the entrance to the Franklin Institute fi.edu) the city’s expansive science museum. The cavernous inner dome houses a big Ben statue built to the same scale as the Lincoln Memorial. The museum’s ode to Ben, displaying some of his many inventions, is a permanent exhibit called “Franklin… He’s Electric.” You can see an electrostatic machine, a clever long-reach device and a pair of swim fins (yes, he invented those too).

A 10-minute cab ride across town will land you in the Old City, where Franklin sites are clustered within walking distance. Most of them are run by the National Park Service, which gives excellent free daily tours. For $5, guides in period dress at Centipede Tours (centipede inc. com) offer a Saturday-evening summer candlelight stroll through the Society Hill historic neighborhood.

Right across the street from Independence Hall in the Old City is the American Philosophical Society amphilsoc.org) founded by Franklin in 1743. (At the time, natural–as opposed to moral–philosophy referred to science.) On view now is an exhibit about the founding fathers of American natural history, from Jefferson to Audubon.

Accessible from Market and Chestnut streets is Franklin Court, site of Franklin’s home. Completed in 1766, the house was an object of great pride for Franklin, particularly the third-floor music room. Franklin chose this site for its strategic and symbolic value; determined to honor his leather-apron roots, he built the courtyard on a spot that lay squarely between posh and working-class neighborhoods. After he died, Franklin’s grandchildren razed the place, thinking the property was worth more than the home. In 1976 architect Robert Venturi’s ghost structure–a beam outline (to scale) of the home–was erected.

An operating post office and the Franklin Court Printing Office are situated next to the Market Street entrance to Franklin Court. The post office is the only one in the U.S. that does not fly a flag, because when Franklin was appointed the first American Postmaster General, in 1775, the nation had not yet come into being.

Head down Market Street toward the Delaware River, and tucked back on Third and Church streets is Christ Church, which Franklin attended. Parishioners bought their pews in those days, and Franklin chose Pew 70, a little more than halfway back from the altar. Not wanting to purchase a showy front-row seat, he maintained he could hear fine from his pew. Plus, having a pew in the middle meant he could arrive late and leave early, and his dozing was less visible.

Walk north on Second Street, and you will hit Elfreth’s Alley, believed to be the oldest residential street in the U.S. You may notice tiny mirrors jutting from the top floors. Called busy-body mirrors, these contraptions, which enable people to see who is coming down the street, were brought back from Holland by Franklin. Also look out for black iron plaques that depict four fists locked in the fire fighter’s carry. These plaques indicated that a house was insured against fire, insurance being one of Franklin’s imports from London.

Franklin, who enjoyed many of his meals at City Tavern, would be pleased to see that the replica of the original, which burned in 1834, honors its predecessor’s layout and even the apparel of the 18th century serving staff. The authentic recipes for such fare as apple-wood-smoked pork chops give diners a taste of the past.

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