Escort Notes: Philadelphia Historic Highlights

Philadelphia Through the Years

  • Founding

In 1681, King Charles II granted 45,000 square miles of land on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers to William Penn as payment for a debt owed to Penn’s father. Here, this Quaker gentlemen founded Philadelphia — a Greek term translated as “City of Brotherly Love” — as part of his “Holy Experiment” of religious freedom in the New World. His fellow Quakers settled here, as well as people of many other religious backgrounds, giving Philadelphia the diverse ethnic flavor residents still savor today.

Penn’s chief surveyor, Captain Thomas Holmes, used a grid pattern for the city that included five public squares — all of which remain today — to realize Penn’s vision of a “greene countrie towne.”

Primarily due to its excellent location on the Atlantic Coast and accessible port facilities, Philadelphia grew rapidly in the 18th century until it was the largest English-speaking city in the world outside of London. It was appropriately named the “Athens of the Americas” and was the cultural center of the New World.

  • Historical Government

Philadelphia was also a governmental center, serving as the nation’s temporary capital from 1790 to 1800. The City’s history from 1774 to 1800 is closely linked to that of the American Revolution and the newborn nation. Thus, it is often referred to as “America’s birthplace.” Visitors to Philadelphia can learn more about that fight for freedom by visiting “America’s Most Historic Square Mile,” Independence National Historical Park. Two of the nation’s most precious monuments to freedom — the Liberty Bell, an international symbol of freedom, and Independence Hall — are focal points of the Park.

The First Continental Congress met at Carpenters’ Hall in 1774. In 1776, Independence Hall served as the site where the colonists adopted the Declaration of Independence. In 1787, 55 delegates to a federal convention envisioned a strong government for our new nation with the creation of the Constitution of the United States.

  • Historic Districts and Other Sites

A few blocks away is Old City, the first commercial area of Philadelphia and one of America’s oldest business districts. Although most of the buildings now date from the latter part of the 19th century, the area still features the following attractions including Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continually occupied residential street in the country; The Betsy Ross House, where legend has it the seamstress sewed the first American Flag here; and Christ Church, where services are still held today as they were when George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other colonial leaders worshipped there.

During the 19th century, the city grew, annexing parts of the countryside and consolidating with the country in 1854. The annexation included Fairmount Park, now the world’s largest municipal park, spanning nearly 9,000 acres. Among the attractions are a dozen 18th- and 19th-century mansions, Philadelphia Zoo (the nation’s first), Victorian-era Boathouse Row, Shofuso, an authentic reconstruction of a 17th-century Japanese scholar’s house and garden and Memorial Hall a reminder of America’s Centennial, celebrated at the United States first World’s Fair in 1876.

  • Philadelphia War Museums

As America went to war in the 20th century, so did Philadelphia. Visitors can explore Philadelphia’s involvement in various American wars at Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River, including Independence Seaport Museum; USS Becuna, a World War II submarine; and Gazela of Philadelphia, a fishing vessel that is more than a century old. Also nearby is the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

  • Modern Philadelphia History

In 1987, One Liberty Place was the first building to break the early 20th-century gentlemen’s agreement that no building be taller than William Penn’s statue atop City Hall (about 41 stories). Now, the Liberty Place complex is one of many buildings that rise above the City’s founder, including the Mellon Bank Building and Bell Atlantic Tower and the Comcast Center, the tallest building between New York City and Chicago. A progressive spirit continues as new skyscrapers light up the skyline of the second largest city on the East Coast, increasing the popularity of evening illumination tours.


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