Independence National Historical Park
Bishop White House; Carpenters' Hall; Christ Church; City Tavern; Declaration House; First Bank of the United States; Franklin Court; Free Quaker Meeting House; Independence Living History Center; Merchants' Exchange Building; New Hall Military Museum; Philosophical Hall; Second Bank of the United States; Todd House; Washington Square
Visited: March 23, 2004
Second Visit: December 1,2005
Third Visit: December 7, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 3 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT?
Independence NHP is a collection Old City Philadelphia buildings, museums, cemeteries and parks that commemorate events and people who were integral in the creation of the United States. This review covers the 15 Independence NHP sites whose entry requires no security check and no entry fee. Scroll down for a short synopsis of the sites covered here. There are separate reviews for the Liberty Bell Center, the Independence Hall complex and the National Constitution Center.
The mixture of red-brick Federal, white stone Greek Revival and stately white Federal architectures all set amidst open green park space and cobblestone streets is a perfect enscapsulation of the Founding Fathers' worldly understandings and lofty aspirations. Their 18th century residences, meeting places and streets speak of English roots but their banks and post-Revolution contructions aim for equality with the Greek and Roman civilizations of antiquity.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
Even without the inclusion of Independence Hall, the historical significance of these 15 sites is unmatched by any collection of buildings throughout the United States. Nearly every American Age of Enlightenment-era idea originated or first appeared in the western hemisphere within these grounds: the museum, the post office, centralized banking, the fire station, electricity, meteorology, the library, the philosophical society. It is no underestimation to state that American thought and the idea of the United States began here.
With that came the Declaration of Independence and the shattering of the monarchic inevitability, the notion of democracy and self rule. It all happened here. The First Continental Congress took place in Carpenter's Hall, these revolutionaries walked and discussed violent rebellion in these same streets, lived in these buildings, wrote the Declaration of Independence here, ate in the City Tavern, lounged on these lawns and changed the world in Old City Philadelphia.
Less tourist traffic means more Ranger attention for those who venture outside the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
I-676 and I-95 both drop you off in the center of Old Town Philly. Independence Hall is located on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Street. Most of these 15 sites are located within six L-shaped blocks of each other beginning in the north at Arch Street, turning eastward at 6th and Chestnut and ending at 2nd and Walnut. Many of the connecting alleyways and sidestreets are cobblestone and could prove difficult to maneuver.
Independence NHP's biggest deficiency is that it is not as tourist friendly as Boston's Freedom Trail. Boston NHP strings the visitor to its attractions via a painted path. Independence NHP tells you to first go to its Visitor Center and to sort it out from there. As a result, the visitor goes to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall but forgets about these 15 sites; sites that could rightly claim to be America's real Freedom Trail. It is also difficult to discern which Old City Philadelphia buildings are part of Independence NHP and which buildings are unaffiliated and privately-run museums. If you do not arrive with a plan, the Park could get confusing and overwhelming.
These 15 buildings also have variant and often vexing operating hours. Many are open only from Wednesday through Sunday with limited hours. Plan your visit accordingly; we would not come here on a Monday or Tuesday.
The Park's bookstore is a stand-alone entity located in the Georgian brick Pemberton House on Chestnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. The store sells a good selection of books but nowhere near the definitive choice that the definitive American history site should have.
We enjoyed our City Tavern visit immensely. Our favorite part was the Yards Brewery ales which are brewed only for the City Tavern. These beers (the Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, the George Washington Porter and the Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce) styles are historically accurate and based on the recipes of our Founding Fathers! And they taste good too. If spirit imbibing is not your thing, the Tavern's lunch and dinner menus are just as historically exacting and just as scrumptious.
Entry into all of these buildings is free. Carpenter's Hall, Philosopher's Hall and Christ Church are still privately owned and all three ask for donations.
There is a series of parking lots and garages in the Independence NHP vicinity. You will end up paying somewhere between $10 and $20 for a full day. Discount parking validation at the Independence Visitor Center or National Constutition Center is a possibility. Metered and free two-hour street parking south of the Sites is possible but could prove difficult.
Dining at the City Tavern is pricey but a fun and historical experience.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
During his 2005 visit, Michael spent a wonderful hour plus at Philosophical Hall openly discussing some of his more unorthodox American history theories. The American Philosophical Society guide was more than willing to contribute some of her own left-field ideas. The two jabbered on and on like long lost relatives. Michael only left in order to beat the rush hour traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway...and to find his wife who was seven blocks away at the Philadelphia Convention Center.
We encountered the same engaging historical conversation with a Carpenter's Hall docent, Independence Living History Center archeologists (on two occasions) and at the Declaration House. We did not take the Ranger-led only tour of the Bishop White House and Todd House but are confident it elicits the same sort of graduate level talk. Who else but history buffs would tour these buildings?
The terrific staff found throughout these buildings is the key to any educational visit. If you don't engage the docents and Rangers on duty, many of your learning experiences will be underwhelming. The NPS museums at Franklin Court, the New Hall Military Museum and the Declaration House are dated and/or in disrepair.
Thankfully, you don't have to look hard to find terrific museums.
The small American Philosophical Society museum is stellar and rotates its exhibits yearly. The 2007 exhibit has yet to be revealed but 2005's amazing display included the only original Declaration of Independence printed on vellum, William Penn's Charter of Privileges and the first stored and printed computer program. The other treasures on display were just as incredible.
Equally incredible is the newly reopened Portrait Gallery located in the Second Bank of the United States. The nearly 200 portraits on display put a face on the patriots, thinkers, soldiers and historical figures honored at the Park. The skillful Charles Willson Peale characterizations reveal the personalities and thoughts of 18th-century America.
For anyone who loves American history, these 15 sites are paradise. They are a shining American treasure. They don't have the obligatory feel of the Liberty Bell or the security-addled confusion of Independence Hall. You can experience their wonder at your leisure and either by yourself or with the aid of similarly minded guides. Your time here won't be force-fed and might be too brainy for the casual tourist.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
There is so much to see at this Site. So much history and so much detail. We have been here three times in three years and have not covered everything. Each building offers untold gems and, with your proactive imagination, an adventure that transports you back in time to the American creation.
Independence NHP's Less-Famous Sites
Sorted by our order-of-visit priority.
Second Bank of the United States - From 1816-1832 was the most significant bank in the world. Was the center of Andrew Jackson's attack on the National bank. Currently is a portrait gallery whose collection composed America's first museum.
Carpenters' Hall - Site of the First Continental Congress. Site of first American lending library. Original site of the Bank of the United States, the world's first central bank not owned by a monarch.
Franklin Court - Site of the only home Benjamin Franklin ever owned, his residence during the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress and his place of death.
Philosophical Hall - Home of Ben Franklin's American Philosophical Society, America's most remarkable collective of Age of Enlightenment scientific thinkers.
Independence Living History Center - Working archeology center.
First Bank of the United States - Exemplary example of Greek Revival architecture and perhaps the first American building built with a classical facade. Alexander Hamilton's highly controversial Bank of the United States moved here from Carpenter's Hall in 1797 shortly after the Bank's expensive contruction. The First Bank is not open to the public.
Christ Church - Burial ground for Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and countless other significant Americans.
Declaration House - House where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
City Tavern - Tavern where the Founding Fathers ate that has been restored to its Revolution-era appearance. The tavern serves authentic period food.
Bishop White House - House restored to show upper-class Philadelphia life during the time of the Revolution.
Todd House - 1791-93 home of future first lady Dolley Madison.
New Hall Military Museum - Site of the first Department of War.
Merchants' Exchange Building - Important example of Greek Revival architecture.
Free Quaker Meeting House - Meeting House of the fighting Quakers; dissident Friends who broke from their church's pacifist principles during the Revolution.
Washington Square - Site of the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War soldier.