Philadelphia Stories and Tips

Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site

Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site Photo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


We’re early (trying to beat the heat), but the attraction is open between 9am and 5pm Wednesday through Sunday in the winter months and 7 days a week in summer. The door seems locked, but as I am "gently rapping," a rollicking ranger throws open the door, and Andrew McDougal welcomes us to Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site.

We start with the 8-minute film that puts into perspective Poe’s six years (1838-1844) in Philadelphia. He lived in many houses in the city, but only this one survives. His sojourn here in his rented "rose-covered cottage" with his wife, Virginia Clemm, and her mother, Maria, was happy and productive. Even Poe himself tells us that in his poem "Annabel Lee:"

"The angels, not half so happy in heaven, Went envying her and me--"

Perhaps "that was the reason (as all men know... )" that Congress decided to make this house on Spring Garden Street the national memorial to one of our most cherished poets.

Other Poe houses can be visited in Richmond, Baltimore, and New York. I "toured" the one-room residence in Richmond in the late 1970s and found it lacking in interest then, with only a table displaying some manuscripts. When I offer this comment to Andrew McDougal, he practically jumps up and down, saying, "No, they have the original manuscripts of... " (I forget which works).

One thing is for certain: our ranger guide is passionate for Poe! He becomes excited again and again, and his big eyes light up with enthusiasm as he explains why Poe was more than a "jingle-maker," a label I remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson assigned him (probably upon reading, "To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/ From the bells, bells, bells, bells/ Bells, bells, bells."

I dare to ask if he really considers Poe an intellectual comparable to the Brahman Poets of New England or transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau. Oh, boy! This is where I have my preconceived notions about Poe as a mere technician with adolescent subject matter destroyed! It seems that I have paid attention only to works that the poet intended for public consumption and to make a living, not those that established his reputation as critic and editor. I hear figures representing skyrocketing circulation for Burton’s and Graham’s while he was editor for those literary magazines and quotes from many leading literary figures that prove their admiration for his concepts. As for the Brahmans, he corresponded with Longfellow and Lowell.

This is so much fun that we hate to let go of Andrew so that he can eat his lunch. He lingers to make sure we understand the circumstances of Poe’s death. I know that he was found drunk in Baltimore on election day and that rumor has it that overzealous poll workers may have filled him with liquor to get him to vote their ticket. Andrew teaches us the term "cooping," the underhanded practice of taking voters to a cellar and pouring whiskey down them before taking them to the polls--then changing their clothes and taking them back again and again! Do you know that our most famous national poet was found in somebody else’s clothes? That cinches this rendition of his death for me, but Andrew still chocks it up to coincidence. On election day and in somebody else’s clothes?

We haven’t seen the rest of the house yet, so we get our copy of the self-guided walk-through. Walls have been stripped of 17 coats of paint and wallpaper, and the NPS doesn’t know yet what they are going to do with them. They want them to look new, as they did in Poe’s day, and they’re studying alternative treatments for them as we tour. The empty house has its original fireplaces, and photos and critical commentary are displayed on closet shelves. We see the bedroom where Poe wrote by candlelight. He explains in one of his essays that he considers gaslight "ghastly," so he didn’t use the fixtures with which his brand-new house in Spring Garden suburb was supplied. We talk about what Poe might have done with today’s technology. Andrew speculates that he would have loved to work with hi-tech media.

We don’t want to miss the cellar, the one Poe describes in some of his macabre stories.

It is complete with fake fireplace. The poet lived in this house in 1843-44 and wrote "The Raven," "The Black Cat," "The Goldbug," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" while he lived here, but the cellar is described in other works, too.

Another room off the visitor center is interesting. It is decorated according to Poe’s "Philosophy of Furniture," in which the poet pokes fun at aesthetes and effetes. The room is well furnished with a sofa, table, and chairs, and a mirror hangs "so high that a man can’t see himself in it."

There is also a painting of nature, one of classical architecture, and, of course, one of a beautiful woman (living and healthy!), a Thomas Sully portrait.

Andrew engages us in discussion of planned improvements. Next visit, the house may look new, as it did in Poe’s day, and window scrims may display what the poet saw when he looked out. I suggest that a hologram of Poe talking about his own life and works would be nice--I can just imagine how much fun Andrew might have assuming the voice of Poe for the recording. His first impression is that "It couldn’t be done. The technology isn’t available." He doesn’t know that Friendship Hill has one of Albert Gallatin, and when I impart this information to him, he is anxious to call that National Historical Site to find out how they have managed to get one.

The site presently attracts only 15,000 visitors each year. Nevermore! What school child doesn’t recognize the name, even the poetry, of Poe? What American can’t quote the first stanza of The Raven? This is the American poet the French and Russians want to visit, since Baudelaire translated Poe into French and engineered his revival on the continent. (As for Philly poet sites, the French tour here, while Brits and Scots prefer Whitman House, another ranger tells us.)

We learn that Poe’s residence might have been destroyed if not for Richard Gimbel, the department store magnate who bought the entire block and donated it to the people of Philadelphia in 1971. The house has been a National Historic Landmark since 1962 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

If I think visitation here is pathetic, I am appalled to learn that Whitman House in Camden has only 5,000 to 7,000 visitors each year. What? That site is accessible to Philly visitors via Riverlink Ferry, and we’re headed there next.

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