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Colonial City in Context: A Context Travel Walking Tour of Old Philadelphia

by Suzanne Fluhr on December 20, 2017 · 27 comments

Christ Church, Philadelphia

Disclosure: My Context Travel Philadelphia walking tour was complimentary with the understanding that I am free to base my report on my own honest observations and opinions.

Having enjoyed Context Travel walking tours in Rome, Italy; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Mexico City, I jumped at the chance to do my fourth Context Travel walking tour in Philadelphia, my home city, even on a cold December day.

I was happy to learn that the tour, Colonial City in Context, would include a stop at Benjamin Franklin’s grave which I first visited in 1963. I’ve been a Philadelphia history geek, nerd, devotee ever since I was assigned to do a school report about Benjamin Franklin in fourth grade. My father took me to visit many historical sites associated with Philadelphia’s most famous “Renaissance man”. (We prefer not to mention the pesky factoid that he was actually born in Boston as he had the good sense to flee leave there at the age of 17 in 1723).

Context Travel’s (Very) Small Group Walking Tours

Context travel docent, John Bright

Our Context Travel docent, John Bright, explaining the colonial era box pews in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia.

Context Travel’s small group walking tours are designed for the “intellectually curious”. In my experience, most “small group” tours limit participation to 12-15 participants. Context Travel walking tour groups are limited to only six which greatly enhances the opportunity for interaction with the masters and Ph.D. level docents (guides), and with other group members.

The chemistry of every tour group is different and can contribute or detract from a tour experience. I have enjoyed interacting with the other participants on my Context Travel tours. They have their own interesting backgrounds, are engaged, and ask good questions.

Our docent, John Bright, was uniquely qualified to guide us in our “Colonial City in Context” tour through Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. John holds a masters degree in religion. For his “day job”, he works for the Christ Church Preservation Trust, the group charged with preserving and conserving the historic Christ Church where many of the Founding Fathers of the United States worshiped and are buried.

William Penn’s Philadelphia

We met John in front of City Tavern, a reconstruction of the original 1773 tavern. City Tavern was frequented by many of the Founding Fathers of the United States who were far from their home colonies when they met in Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress in 1774. John Adams of Massachusetts called it “the most genteel tavern in America”.

Directly across the street from City Tavern is Welcome Park, an open air museum mostly dedicated to telling the story of Pennsylvania and  Philadelphia’s founding by William Penn in 1682.

Welcome Park has a detailed explanatory time line chronicling William Penn’s somewhat unlikely life path given that he was the son of a wealthy British admiral. He was expelled from Oxford University for “religious non-conformity” when he became devoted to the Quaker religion and spent time in an English prison for his beliefs.

John explained that Penn was unique among the founders of other British North American colonies. Although the other colonies were also formed by groups fleeing religious persecution in Britain, once they were in charge, they brooked no dissension from their religious beliefs. Those who didn’t conform were subject to expulsion and worse. In contrast, Penn set forth in Pennsylvania’s founding documents that all monotheists would be welcome in Pennsylvania regardless of their manner of worship and specific beliefs.

William Penn's 1683 Map of Philadelphia

William Penn’s 1683 Plan for Philadelphia (Arrow points to what is now Rittenhouse Square)

Penn intended Philadelphia to be a planned community. Having witnessed London’s 1665 bubonic plague outbreak and the Great London Fire of 1666, he wanted Philadelphia to be a “greene country towne” rather than a crowded, fetid city like the London of his day. In 1683, he produced a plan, laying out a grid of streets and parks between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Building lots were to have garden spaces. Penn’s plan can be viewed laid out on the ground of Welcome Park.

Today, as the fifth largest city in the United States, Center City Philadelphia has the cheek to jowl skyscrapers common in most United States’ cities. However, Penn’s plan can still be appreciated in the many blocks of low-rise residences on leafy Center City streets. Indeed, four of Penn’s designated parks survive, including the one where I live, Rittenhouse Square.

Colonial Philadelphia and Religious Tolerance

As far as I can determine from my travels and from my study of history, human beings seem hard wired  to revert to tribalism, often with tragic results.

Many of the American colonies were founded by people fleeing religious persecution in their home countries. However, once they were in charge, they also imposed strict doctrinal orthodoxy on anyone wanting to live among them. (I’m looking at you Puritans of Massachusetts). Therefore, it is truly a testament to William Penn’s vision and leadership that a degree of tolerance for religious differences survived in Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia) throughout the colonial era from 1683 until the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776.

The Continental Congresses that debated, wrote and adopted the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States’ Constitution (1787), met in Penn’s City of Brotherly Love. His principles of “religious freedom” and the separation of the “state” from the religious beliefs and practices of the governed were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights amendments to the United States Constitution.

Colonial Philadelphia’s Houses of Worship

John took us to visit non-Quaker colonial era churches of different denominations still standing and in use today in Philadelphia’s Old City. These are bricks and mortar evidence that William Penn, and those Penn left in charge of colonial Philadelphia, did for the most part, actually practice what they preached about religious tolerance.

Old Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Willings Alley (1733)

Leaving Welcome Park, we walked south a few blocks on 2nd Street to Willings Alley, an unassuming, narrow cobblestone street. The entrance to the church is a narrow passageway off the street. John explained that notwithstanding the promise of religious freedom in William Penn’s Charter of Privileges for Pennsylvania, it was thought better not to advertise the presence of a Popish place of worship in largely Protestant colonial Philadelphia.

Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church (1761)

Burial ground, Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

The colonial era burial ground outside Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia.

We continued to walk south to Pine Street where the colonial era Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church stands at the corner of 3rd and Pine Streets. Although Penn’s Quakers fled to Pennsylvania to escape the tyranny of the Anglican Church of England, members of that denomination were free to build their houses of worship in colonial Philadelphia. (The Anglican Church in America became Episcopalian in 1789).

Saint Peter’s has retained the box pews that were in vogue when the church was built. Surrounded by its graveyard with 18th century graves, Saint Peter’s remains a very active church known today for its forward thinking, inclusive congregation.

Physick and Powel Houses

Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Physick and Powel Houses in Society Hill Philadelphia which were closed the day of our tour. However, John walked us by them and took a few minutes to explain their architectural styles. and the lives of their significant owners. (Physick House – a Federal Style free-standing city mansion owned by a prominent physician.  Powell House: a Georgian row house, formerly the home of Philadelphia’s last colonial mayor and first mayor after independence. It was used by the British during their occupation of Philadelphia in 1778).

Carpenters’ Hall

As we walked back to the area that is today part of Independence National Historical Park, John had us duck into Carpenters’ Hall, the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774. We appreciated the chance to warm up as we learned that Carpenters’ Hall was still under construction in 1774 as the home of the Carpenters’ Company. Founded in 1724, the Carpenters’ Company is the oldest still operating trade guild in the United States.

John explained that in colonial times, “carpenters” encompassed all the building trades, including architects. The building, constructed in the popular symmetrical Georgian style, served as an advertisement for the trades that built it.

The front of Carpenter’s Hall, Independence National Historical Park. (Photo credit: Beyond My Ken, CC Lic. 4.0 Internat’l).

Colonial Philadelphia “Downtown”

We left Carpenters’ Hall and continued north to Christ Church, walking through what was then the commercial and governmental hub of colonial era Philadelphia.

John pointed out the Museum of the American Revolution, opened in April of 2017. I have already visited the Museum, but I need a return visit as mine was interrupted by a power failure.

We walked through the land on which Benjamin Franklin’s House once stood. Instead of a reconstruction, just the outline of the home’s superstructure is there. The site houses a relatively new museum about Benjamin Franklin, still revered as one of Philadelphia’s most influential residents.

Franklin Court contains an operating U.S. post office. Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general in the American colonies. As we stood outside the Post Office, on what is today Market Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets, John explained that during colonial times, the official name was High Street. However, even in colonial times, it was popularly known as Market Street because it was a major market area.

The original Philadelphia City Hall was located there. Philadelphia was an important international port during the colonial era and the area was also convenient to the docks along the Delaware River. While today a view of the Delaware River at that location is obscured by buildings and Interstate 95, John pointed out that in colonial times one would have walked right onto High Street from the busy Delaware River docks as did Benjamin Franklin when he first arrived in Philadelphia by ship from Boston (via New York) in 1723.

Christ Church and Burial Ground

Given his position with the Christ Church Preservation Trust, John was understandably most animated as we approached Christ Church.

Christ Church, Philadelphia

Cbrist Church in Old City Philadelphia. Its 1754 wooden steeple was the tallest structure in the British American colonies for 56 years.

John explained that though technically founded in 1695, the current Christ Church building was mainly constructed between 1727 and 1744. Rising to a height of 196 feet, the Christ Church steeple was constructed in 1754. For 56 years, it was the tallest construction in the colonial America and then the United States.

Although Christ Church doesn’t have as many remaining box pews as Saint Peter’s Church, John ushered us into the preserved Presidential box occupied by George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This is a goose bump producing experience for history geeks. As I sat there in a history induced reverie, John explained more about the church’s Georgian architecture and pointed out the baptismal font where William Penn was christened which is on loan to the Church.

John explained that the graves under the floor of the church and around the church are people important to the church rather than necessarily to the nation although several founding fathers and generals are buried there.

John then walked us over to the Christ Church Burial Ground. As is often the case with old churches, at the time the burial ground was opened up, it was on the outskirts of the city. Today, it is on the edge of the National Independence Historical Park.

Christ Church burial ground Old City Philadelpiha

The Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Streets in colonial Philadelphia. Over 4,000 people are buried in this small area in stacked graves, including 5 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The marble used for gravestones in colonial Philadelphia has not withstood the test of time and most of the graves in the Christ Church Burial Ground have unreadable headstones. However, John explained that thanks to a 19th century survey and historical research, many of those buried there have been identified. John was able to walk us around and point out the graves of leading historical figures, including 5 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Given the size of the Burial Ground, it is hard to believe that over 4,000 people are buried there. John explained the method of stacked burials during the colonial era which allowed for highly efficient use of the space.

We ended our visit to the historical Christ Church Burial Ground next to the unassuming grave of Benjamin Franklin and his wife, Deborah. The flat slab gravestone is covered with pennies, like the one my father gave me to place there in 1963.

Benjamin Franklin's grave, Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia

The simple grave of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin covered with pennies left by visitors.

Arch Street Meeting House of the Society of Friends

Close by to the Christ Church Burial Ground is the Arch Street Meeting House of the Society of Friends. The main part of the Meeting House on the site was constructed between 1803 and 1805 on land that William Penn deeded to the Society of Friends in 1701. John explained the lack of gravestones by the fact that Quakers do not believe in ostentatious displays even in death. I admit to a bit of a shiver beyond that caused by the cold as I thought about what lay under our feet.

Should You Take the Context Travel Walking Tour: Colonial City in Context?

Our Colonial City in Context tour ended an hour later than scheduled as John was determined that we be able to visit and learn about Philadelphia colonial era landmarks. As a Philadelphia native, some of the history we covered was familiar to me, but I still had a learning experience. Over lunch after the tour, two other tour participants from Houston and Atlanta told me they were glad they had taken the tour as it really added to their appreciation of Philadelphia’s place in the history of the United States.

If you are interested in colonial American history and architecture, you will appreciate this tour. You should be able to stand and walk for at least 3 hours. The walking was mostly over city streets and the tour should be considered handicapped accessible.

Although the tour is half a day, you will be introduced to historical venues to which you might want to return on your own, e.g., the Powel and Physick houses, the Franklin Court Museum and the Museum of the American Revolution.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Dowell December 21, 2017 at 8:50 am

Interesting to do something like that in your home city. I live just outside New York and I’ve never been to some of the most popular tourist attractions like climbing up the Statue of Liberty or going to the top of the Empire State Building. I only end up doing such things lwhen I have out of town visitors.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 24, 2017 at 9:34 pm

It’s true that we often think we’ll get around to visiting the sights in our own home town eventually with the result that tourists have seen somethings we haven’t gotten around to yet.

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Nan December 22, 2017 at 12:56 pm

So what was the point of the box pews? I swear you do such a good job narrating your tour that I feel like I was there with you. I actually envy you the history you live in because if we had a tour here it would be, “and on the left we see the herd bull. On the right we see all of his girlfriends. In the center you see all the babies. Oh, and for those of you who don’t have on muck boots, please watch where you step.”

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 24, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Nan, I’m waiting for your blog post about your neighborhood! People bought or rented the box pews. There were doors on them, so you could bring in a pail of hot coals and keep your feet warm. No central heating in 1735.

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Nan April 4, 2018 at 5:09 pm

I’m glad I checked back – so now I am in the know about those box pews!! I did just give you a post about my neighborhood in that comment (smile). That IS my neighboorhood – unless you want pictures of bulls, cows, babies, poop, and ponds!!!

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Roz Warren December 24, 2017 at 9:17 pm

This sounds fabulous. I’d never heard of Context Tours. Thanks for the inspiration.

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Lois Alter Mark December 25, 2017 at 10:53 am

I love small tour groups and this sounds like it was a fascinating tour. I wish we had done one of them when my son was still in school in Philly.

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Cathy Sweeney December 26, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Context Travel does great tours! Philadelphia is one of the few major cities in the U.S. that I have not yet visited. That really is a shame because I know it’s full of amazing history and culture, I’m a bit of a history buff myself, and ….. there is a family connection with Ben Franklin! Long story, but my granfather (mother’s stepfather) was a direct descendant. Thanks for the virtual tour of your hometown with Context.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 26, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Cathy, I know I’m biased, but Philadelphia is definitely worth a visit. We’re so much more than cheesesteaks and poorly behaved sports fans.

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Irene S. Levine December 26, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Your terrific post proves that there is always much to learn, even about your hometown. We have been on some terrific Context Tours. This company is terrific! I should check out their NYC tours!

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Charles McCool December 28, 2017 at 11:45 am

So much history. I liked walking those brick cobblestone streets and seeing Ben Franklin’s grave. I will visit the Quaker cemetery next time.

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Vicki Winters December 29, 2017 at 2:53 pm

I have such a short attention span that I wouldn’t know what to do with all of those knowledge bombs on a Context Tour. I’m pretty sure I even skipped some of the words in this post, just to admire the pretty pictures. ADHD is both a blessing and a curse:-(

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 29, 2017 at 9:13 pm

I was worried this was a “little” long. I left some stuff out. If you come to Philly, I’ll take you on the ADHD version. 😉

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michele h peterson December 30, 2017 at 7:24 am

What a fascinating tour through history and architecture. I’d love to take a Context Tour as I love to get all the inside details on a place and often find other tour guide companies too focused on entertainment ( which is fine) but at the expense of depth.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 30, 2017 at 7:46 am

Context has tours in many European cities and they recently started some tours in Mexico City. Google “Context Travel” and any city you might be visiting.

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Tom Bartel December 30, 2017 at 11:32 am

Thanks so much for the thorough write up of the Context Tour. We’ve also taken several of them and have loved them all. Unsurpassed for the depth and detail they offer. As for Philly, we’ve been a couple of times and, unfortunately, we’ve kind of been rushed and have only seen the Liberty Bell and had a cheesesteak (and a dinner with you and Dr. Excitement.) Honestly, can’t wait to get back and take a deeper dive into American history. I was also a religion major for a bit, and love to hear of the history of religion in this country, and how England screwed us by sending all their zealots over here.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr January 3, 2018 at 1:26 am

I think you had the cheesesteak at the dinner with Dr. Excitement and me. That probably wasn’t a truly authentic cheesesteak.

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Rose Palmer January 2, 2018 at 1:57 pm

Really enjoyed your in depth post-I’ve enjoyed a few Context tours around the globe, but like many, I am guilty of seeing far away places in depth but ignoring those close to home. I definitely need to spend more time in Philly. Let me know the next time you do something interesting in the city and I can join you.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr January 3, 2018 at 1:27 am

Will do. You can also subscribe to http://www.uwishunu.com which is a website run by Philly.com, our official tourism board. It lists everything going on in the city each week.

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Rena January 5, 2018 at 10:12 am

I’ve never been to Philadelphia before but you sure make it look like an appealing destination. I’m hoping to tour the northeast this summer and will definitely have to add Philly to our list!

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Debbie D. January 5, 2018 at 11:35 am

Back in the ’80s, we got lost and took an unintentional tour of Philadelphia while driving to Atlantic City. It looks like a beautiful city and we’d love to visit on purpose one day. 🙂 As a history buff, this Context Travel tour sounds ideal! Thanks for the info.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr January 5, 2018 at 1:19 pm

I definitely hope you’ll come back for a proper visit to Philadelphia on purpose so we could meet in real life.

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Debbie D. January 11, 2018 at 11:18 am

That would be great! 🙂 Like you, though, we tend to focus on more international travel. Still, I hope to do this one day – also New York City. Never been there!

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Haralee January 5, 2018 at 3:24 pm

Wow I am impressed with only 6 for the Context Tours. That really makes it intimate. I love taking walking tours but have never used Context so now they are on my radar. Churches and graveyards give a great understanding to the history of a population.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr January 6, 2018 at 6:07 am

Yes. Six is a good number. You can always hear the guide, you feel free to ask questions, and you may actually meet some nice people with similar interests.

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Mike January 16, 2018 at 6:17 pm

Good write up and review, Suzanne. I looked up their other options and cities in the U.S. They seem quite expensive compared to other tours that I’ve researched and yet I’m very aware that often you get what you pay for. I also want to do foodie tours in cities I will revisit someday and new cities. Thank you for sharing this and opening up more options for me to consider! 🙂

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr January 17, 2018 at 11:21 pm

One noticeable difference between Context and other tours is the small size of the group. I have found that it allows for the opportunity to really engage with the guide who is an expert in whatever it is they’re talking about. And at the risk of sounding like a snob (busted ;-), the people who seem to self-select to go on Context walking tours also add to the experience since they usually have a greater interest, and often knowledge about, the subject of the tour. Context has a food tour in Philly. As always, we’ll leave the light on for you.

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