Philadelphia Stories and Tips

Candlelight Walking Tour of Society Hill

Our Guide Erika Photo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


We meet Erika at the Welcome Park at Second and Walnut--or, more accurately, across the street from City Tavern. Reservations aren’t necessary, so anyone with nothing to do on a Saturday evening can simply show up at 6:30pm, pay $5, and take the tour by Centipede Tours. Its greatest limitation is that nobody has any idea how large the group will be until the tour starts, and large groups make for difficulty hearing the guide.

There are only nine of us, but our guide speaks very softly.

Yes, Erika is a very sweet lady, but I wish she had the voice of Robin Williams! I wear myself out two-stepping on rough brick and cobblestone to find a position where I can hear as we walk along on a miserably hot evening, still in the heat of the day, actually, when only those with masochistic tendencies are still out touring. "At least, I have a drink and snack," I console myself, but how to carry all that with camera, writing pad, and pencil? Oh, yes, and paper towels--to wipe the sweat! I have learned that I learn not a thing on my feet. It’s all about experiencing the ambience--and managing the physical plant--until I get home to my desk. So, I must take notes.

And now I see that William Penn brought all the Quakers from England to Pennsylvania in 1682, when he persuaded Charles II to grant him the property west of the Delaware in return for a debt he owed Penn’s father. "Sylvania" means woods, and "society" (as in Society Hill) refers to the Free Society of Traders, not to an upper-crust neighborhood, although many prominent people lived here in the 1700’s.

The first building Erika talks about is City Tavern: "where the Revolution began." Eighty taverns in Philadelphia served working folks, but only this one was for the elite. When the tavern was rebuilt, architects followed diagrams found in a library in England, so the present building replicates the original.

Our next stop is the Merchants Exchange, opened in 1834 and designed by William Strickland, a leader of Greek Revival style and architect for Second Bank, also.

At one time, water that surrounded this building site caused an epidemic of yellow fever. We procede to First Bank (1795) and the Treasurer’s Office Site, where I can’t hear a word. We do learn that Franklin’s house was the first one commandeered by the British when they occupied Philadelphia, and I believe the reason they wanted it was because it was so comfortable and had indoor plumbing. Franklin had the second flush toilet in Philadelphia. We don’t walk anywhere near his house, but that tidbit is relevant to our next stop.

Bishop White’s house was the first one in Philadelphia to have a flush toilet. He was the first bishop at Christ Church. I resolve to visit Christ Church, and this is what I like about walking tours. They tie everything from diverse attractions together, creating positive reinforcement or multifaceted memory. I encounter Bishop White details everywhere I go, and the same is true for all the founding fathers.

We see Old St. Paul’s Church, Powell House, and New Market. New Market was built in the 1700’s, and I believe there are still craft sales here, perhaps on Saturdays.

One might check at the Visitors Center about sales here.

St. Peter’s Church, Thaddeus Kosciuszko House, and more lead us down cobblestone streets with horse-drawn carriages and carriage stones and overgrown, one-lane brick alleys with ingenious driveways, window boxes, boot rakes, and over-the-door spyglass mirrors.

Most of the houses were built in the 1730’s-1770’s, but we see some fairly new ones, modern styles with incredibly interesting twists on design specifications engineered for the purpose of passing design review, which must be strict in this extremely important historic neighborhood.

We’re almost back where we began, I think, when we stop in front of Henry Hill’s house. He was a liquor merchant who built his residence wide in the 1780’s. The width is significant, because folks paid taxes on their homes according to how wide they were. Apparently, Hill was so rich that he didn’t care, and one might speculate that he was a bit of a show-off. Well, isn’t that just typical of the nouveau riche?

In spite of the difficulty hearing our guide, I can recommend this tour. The cost is negligible. I could have asked Erika to speak up, but I was concerned about her physical comfort on such a hot night. She was wearing a long dress with full sleeves and a bonnet, and I didn’t have the nerve to ask more of her. If you walk Society Hill during Visitor Center hours, you can probably get an audio tour there, but if you have other activities planned for the day, when museums are open, then you might want to take this tour in the evening, when audio tours are probably not available anywhere. We were trying to reserve our daytime hours for museums, and this activity didn’t detract from our itinerary. See more here.

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