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Exploring the ‘City of Brotherly Love’

Lysa Allman-Badwin | 6/19/2014, 9:20 a.m.
Eastern State Penitentiary features fascinating exhibits, interactive experiences, art installations and oral histories about the lives of the prisoners and employees as well as its innovative design.

In the first part of our exploration of Philadelphia, we were just getting the lay of the land, including the 55-acre, 20-city block Independence National Historical Park, the Liberty Bell Center, the National Constitution Center and several other sites in and around the downtown area. But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg of what Philly has to offer. Unique attractions and historically significant African-American sites are a big part of the story.

One of the most impressive structures anywhere in America is Philadelphia’s City Hall. Still used today for the city’s civic functions, the French Second Empire structure, which took 30 years to build, is the largest, all-masonry, load-bearing building in the world and the tallest City Hall in the U.S. at 548 feet. Tours here give visitors insights into the building’s history and architecture, including 14.5 acres of floor space, approximately 700 rooms and 250-plus lifelike marble statues adorning the exterior on all sides. The crowning touch is the statue of city founder William Penn, weighing 27 tons at a height of 37 feet, with jaw-dropping dimensions, including a 23-foot hat circumference, 18-inch nose length, 4-foot hair strands, 5-foot feet lengths and 12.5-foot arm lengths. Be sure to take the Observation Tower Tour as well, which offers a glass-enclosed, spectacular 360-degree view of the city.

Marking its 294th anniversary this year, Christ Church Burial Ground is the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin, as well as four other signers of the Declaration of Independence and many of Philly’s most prominent leaders. Featuring 1,400 gravesites, it stands as “one of America’s most interesting Colonial and Revolution-era graveyards.”

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The All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors is a beautiful bronze and granite sculpture on Logan Circle honoring Black service men and women.

At the 975-foot tall, 58-floor Comcast Center—the tallest building in Philadelphia and the tallest “green” building in the country—you will find “The Comcast Experience.” This 2,000 square-foot, four-millimeter LED screen, the largest in the world, is an awe-inspiring attraction incorporating technological and artistic lifelike expressions at a resolution 500 percent greater than that of an HDTV. The outside features a public plaza and fountain, a wraparound energy-saving “glass curtain” offering 360-degree views of the city’s urban landscape and a striking eight-story “Winter Garden.”

Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary is unlike today’s prisons, which are designed primarily to punish and, in the process, dehumanize occupants. It came about from the desire of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons to provide a place where the true definition of the word “penitence” could take place in humane conditions. Revolutionary for its time because it incarcerated prisoners without deplorable treatment or corporal punishment; every prison in the world was soon modeled after it.

The self-guided audio tour here is simply fascinating, offering an inside look through exhibits, interactive experiences, art installations and oral histories into the lives of the prisoners and employees and its innovative design. A synagogue, barbershop, psychological and spiritual counseling, work programs and more were just a few of the other aspects added over the years. And yes, no visit here would be complete without a stop by Al Capone’s cell, an unbelievable example of how his wealth and influence could not be contained, even behind prison walls.