The waning pandemic has not only left its mark on how we live our lives, it has also left its mark on various buildings and historic sites in the city.
A number of these sites can be found in Old City and Society Hill.
One such deteriorating site is Welcome Park at 129 Sansom Walk, a giant grid-iron street plan of the City of Philadelphia designed atop a marble ground plane. Commissioned by the Friends of Independence Mall National Historic Park and opened in 1982, Welcome Park shows Penn’s street plan in miniature, including a small replica of the William Penn statue atop City Hall tower and a doll house sized replica of Penn’s original slate-roof house.
Welcome Park was designed by Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (born in 1931 as Denise Lakofski), two architects joined in marriage and known as VSBA with offices in Manayunk. VSBA was instrumental in making design changes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In fact, the firm’s long association with PMA spanned the years 1976 to 1997 and included a new West Foyer renovation (since reconfigured by Frank Gehry’s ‘Core’ Project).
VSBA’s Welcome Park design was meant as an ‘open air’ museum and was often referred to as the only site in the city “dedicated to interrupting the life and ideas of its founder, William Penn.”
Welcome Park, however, never captured the public’s imagination. It was the little park with the squares that people walked through on their way to the nearby Landmark Ritz East theater complex and a restaurant that seemed to change hands every six months.
Open-air museums rarely succeed unless they follow the template of what it means to be an open-air museum, that being a museum that exhibits old buildings that are reconstructed so they resemble how they looked in an earlier period in history.
The one open air museum in the city that seems to attract a lot of people (but only in nice weather) is the President’s House at 5th and Market Streets, which is not a house at all but a series of brick walls decorated with teaching story boards.
One might also mention another VSBA project, the Ghost House at Franklin Court, an open-air museum of sorts with structural beams that outline the shape of Franklin’s long demolished house. The Architect’s Newspaper said of that structure, “It is arguably one of the most gratifying projects of the postmodern period in successfully integrating historicist subtleties with modernist clarities.” Whether it works or not, is another question.
Welcome Park has many fans, as evidenced by its Facebook Friends of Welcome Park page. In a June 2019 posting there, fans boast that it is a “beautiful day for a planting” as well as thanking the many volunteers that help the park to stay beautiful.
Walking through Welcome Park, I noticed a homeless man sleeping on a bench. I also spotted holes in the cracked flagstones. The mural boards that form a sort of ‘instruction’ wall around the park have become faded over time. Aside from weather related wear and tare, the signage along the wall reads and looks as if it was designed for elementary school students who had never heard of William Penn.
There are blue and white signs extolling Quaker Religious Freedom and ‘William Penn Gentleman.’ Overall, these excessively wordy presentations framed as a mural detracts from the aesthetic appeal of the park. Wordy billboards rarely make the grade, whether they are placed along I-95 or in Welcome Park as (overwrought) “intelligent” history lessons.
There was also graffiti on the replica of William Penn’s The Slate Roof House. I also noticed that reading the street map at ground level was a challenge because of the cracks in the white dividing lines on the map have made it hard to decipher individual letters. There are also large fissures in the while flagstone.
Much can be written about the legacy or the history of the ground beneath a building or a park. What once stood on a certain spot can leave a sort of psychic imprint, a shadow effect that lives far beyond the life of the building that once was. Reason and logic cannot explain such things, but most of us have had the experience of feeling uncomfortable when entering certain spaces. My own feeling of discomfort—eeriness—concerning Welcome Park was confirmed when I read a www.ExploringPhiladelphia.com entry on the park:
“In 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, the Slate Roof House was demolished, over the objections of conservationists. The purpose was to construct the Commercial Exchange Building.
“Ironically, the Commercial Exchange Building didn't last long. The Slate Roof House had survived, for nearly two centuries. In marked contrast, the Commercial Exchange survived for barely two years, before being burned down.
“However, the owners of the Commercial Exchange Building were undaunted by either.
“It was eventually sold to the Keystone Telephone Company, and finally sold to Bell Telephone.
“In 1976, the year Philadelphia and the nation observed the Bicentennial, the structure was finally demolished. “
Welcome Park’s historic ground speaks volumes, as they say.
Not far from Welcome Park is City Tavern and the adjoining Apothecary Shop. City Tavern, which dates from 1772, closed its doors in November 2020, thanks to the pandemic. A small sign outside the former restaurant states that “City Tavern is closed pending award of a new concession contract.” The Apothecary Shop with its colonial herb and medicine bottles nearly arranged in its front windows looks like it hasn’t been opened in decades. Inspecting the shop’s exterior from the sidewalk, I noticed rotting window frames and chipped paint.
Closer to Society Hill Towers at 127-129 Spruce Street is the historic A Man Full of Trouble Tavern, built in 1760 along the banks of what was then Dock Creek by Michael Sisk for Philadelphia’s first tavern keeper, Joseph Beeks.
The tavern was originally known as ‘Man with a Load of Mischief’ and had a sign outside that depicted a colonial man giving a colonial woman a piggyback ride. The sign was sanitized during the tavern’s reconfiguration in the 1960s to include a picture of a male (with a monkey) and female colonialist standing side-by-side.
In the 18th Century ManFull was famous for its cheap drinks. Its customer base was day laborers, sailors and waterfront workers. According to one online history, Martha Smallwood bought ManFull in 1796 and ran the place for the next 30 years. It is said that Smallwood brought civility to the heretofore rambunctious hangout.
In the mid-20th Century, the tavern became a wholesale chicken market before its restoration in the 1960s (for historic tours) by Philadelphia Councilwoman, Virginia Knauer, who is not very well known today despite her impressive achievements.
ManFull was closed to tourists in 1994.
In closing, something must be said about Philadelphia’s most famous Council member who went on to achieve international prominence.
Virginia H. Knauer hailed from Torresdale and was a 1933 graduate of Girls High School and a graduate of both the University of Pennsylvania (Art History, 1937) and PAFA (Fine Arts degree). It was because of Knauer that ManFull was not demolished and transformed into an historic site. Knauer (nee Wright) married Wilhelm F. Knauer, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, in 1940. Together they founded the Knauer Foundation for Historic Preservation that ran the former tavern.
Knauer brought a sense of class and style to Philadelphia City Council. She might be said to be Philadelphia’s Clare Booth Luce. In the 1950s, she threw her support behind Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in 1968 Governor Ray Shafer appointed her as Director of the PA Bureau of Consumer Protection. In the 1980s, Knauer become the consumer adviser to the Reagan-Bush campaign .
Knauer served two terms in the 1960s as an at-large Philadelphia Councilwoman. She also served under three U.S. presidents. She died in October 2011.
Richard Nixon, who appointed Knauer to a number of policy committees, once described the former City Councilwoman as a “very attractive woman” who was not afraid to state her true age.
Nixon, who also appointed Knauer to a number of domestic policy committees, described her as a ‘very attractive woman’ and then went on to say something that you’d never hear a U.S. president, much less a politician, say publicly today:
“Any woman who would very honestly give her age certainly will be able to get manufacturers in this country to tell the truth about their products…”
Knauer’s2011 obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer stated, “… Through her efforts in a lifetime of work in consumer protection, she made that hot dog - and a lot of other products - much healthier for you.
“It wasn't always easy. President Richard Nixon had to go to bat for her when she rankled the hot-dog industry, and a few others, with her insistence on a lower fat percentage in the all-American staple.
“She was Nixon's special assistant for consumer affairs, and when she angered the hot-dog manufacturers, and even ran up against the Department of Agriculture, Nixon stood by her.
“ ‘Stick to your guns, Virginia,” he said. ‘I'm behind you 100 percent.’ ”
City Safari: Man Full of Trouble