“My stay in Philadelphia was very short, but what I saw of its society I greatly liked,” Charles Dickens reported in his 1842 American Notes for General Circulation.
That’s also the conclusion I reached after last summer’s sojourn there. So I made plans for a spring break in the city Boz sketched as “handsome, but distractingly regular.” For six days in April, I returned to some favorite places, such as what Dickens called the “quiet, quaint old library, named after Franklin.” I checked off a few leftovers on my to-see list, like the fountain sculptor Margaret Foley exhibited in Horticultural Hall during the 1876 Centennial Exposition, now in the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center.
But best of all, Pixie and Tish helped me make some terrific new discoveries in Center City. Here are a few of them.
Passing Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street, I stopped to take in its brillant red doors that master blacksmith Samuel Yellin created in 1923.
Taking a shortcut through the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, the celebrated landmark at the corner of Broad and Walnut Streets, I learned all sorts of fun facts. Here, a cook created Chicken à la King, Thomas Edison designed its light fixtures, five presidents overnighted, Bram Stoker started writing Dracula on hotel stationery, and Legionnaires’ Disease struck over 200 American Legion convention-goers in 1976.
Now when I quote my favorite lines from “The Philadelphia Story,” the 1940 film starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I can visualize its setting: The Main Line. The affluent suburbs of western Philadelphia were so named because they were built along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
No vacation is complete without food. I developed a taste for popovers served at Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, Tate’s Bake Shop’s classic crispy cookies and Italian hoagies from Wawa’s, a Pennsylvania-based dairy-turned-convenience store chain whose name comes from the Native American word for the Canada goose that made the Delaware Valley its home. Originally made by the Italians who worked in Philadelphia’s Hog Island shipyards, the city’s official sandwich is an eight-inch roll loaded with prosciutto, salami and provolone cheese, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a dash of oregano-vinegar dressing.
My new favorite thing to say became “Wissahickon Schist.” Ranging in color from browns to grays, this distinctive local stone used in many historic buildings sparkles because of its high amounts of mica and quartz. It takes its name from its home in the valley of the Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill, or “Hidden River,” flowing through Fairmount Park, an area so beautiful that it inspired Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier to write about it.
And I broadened my horizons to include an appreciation for…football! Last year, I ran up the Rocky Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; this year, I couldn’t even see them because they were under cover in preparation for the National Football League’s 82nd Draft, held the next week. For the first time in history, the Draft theater was set up outside for an expected 200,000-strong crowd to witness the picks first-hand.
But the major mission of this Philadelphia story was to see the place at the northeast corner of 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard that evaded me last year. There, I’d start to discover why the city and its environs are known for great gardens.
Dickens noted that Philadelphia was “most bountifully provided with fresh water.” That, combined with its rich soil, its moderate climate and its situation between two major growing zones where plants from the North and South alike flourish in a long growing season, has also resulted in lush landscapes created from excellent gardening conditions. Within 30 miles of Philadelphia, you can visit more than 30 gardens filled with thriving native plants, rare woody plants, State Champion trees and beautiful flower beds designed to please even those, like me, without green thumbs.
Just as Boz’s novels were published in parts, over time, my Philadelphia posts will come out in serial form. I‘ll take you on field trips to some horticultural gems in greater Philadelphia, Delaware and Maryland. In the pleasure gardens of Chanticleer and the garden rooms of Meadowbrook Farm and the Ladew Topiary Gardens, you might find inspiration for plantings to recreate in your own back yard. At the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research, I’ll introduce you to a plant explorer who packed up her phonograph and traveled to British Columbia in search of unusual additions to her collection. Souvenir-seekers will discover a special weathervane at the Morris Arboretum, “Flora Fantastica” at the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation, and a Tervis tumbler covered with an image of Climbing Monkshood, a native plant at the Mount Cuba Center. We’ll check out a Japanese Waterfall and a scarecrow that bears an uncanny resemblance to the owner of an award-winning community garden. Before we leave, we’ll squeeze in a couple of other attractions. One has to do with World War I posters. At the other, you’ll discover the connection between 5,024 spools of thread and 32-inch-thick rubber hockey pucks.
No need to wait for the #36 trolley to 54th Street. First, we’re going to Bartram’s Garden, a fabulous place created by a curious stonemason who sold seeds to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to plant in their gardens at Mount Vernon and Monticello.