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Walking With Ben in Philly

February 01, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PHILADELPHIA — For six hours we have been walking with Ben Franklin through and around the "Miracle at Philadelphia."

Now we are taking a break with him at the old City Tavern where delegates to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 sipped, relaxed, dined, socialized and planned strategies.

At the start of the Revolution, Paul Revere arrived at City Tavern after one of his historic rides to take news of England's reaction to the Boston Tea Party.

Franklin was 81 at the time of the Constitutional Convention and he couldn't have walked through the city as his spirit has walked with us today. But his words, thoughts and inspiration have been part of the audio tape that has been guiding us. We have set our own pace along the walk that will be a highlight for visitors during this Bicentennial year, the Constitution's 200th birthday.

It's a walk that can be as short or as long as you like. Key parts of the walk are accessible for wheelchairs, recalling that Franklin was frequently helped into the Constitutional sessions at Independence Hall; prisoners from the city jail carried him from his nearby home in a sedan chair that was made for him after his return from diplomatic service in France.

AudioWalk Tour

Even armchair visitors to Philadelphia can turn on a cassette for an AudioWalk Tour re-creating the late 18th Century in this city's Independence Historical National Park.

I have been carrying the small rental cassette tape player while my wife Elfriede and I have been listening to the narration and music by two light cords with earphones.

When approaching one of the stops along the way, such as Independence Hall or Ben Franklin's Court, we listen to the story of what we are about to see. City Tavern is at the midway point, and we are listening to the tape while sipping hot tea on this sunlit but brisk January afternoon and sharing a piece of oven-warm apple pie. An illustrated map with dotted trails is marked in sequence with the tape narration.

80-Minute Tape

AudioWalk Tour is the creation of Nancy Gilboy, who researched, wrote and produced the 80-minute tape. Her office is at the Norman Rockwell Museum at 6th and Walnut streets across from Independence Square where we began our walk. Rental fees for the tape player and cassette are $8 for one person, $12 for a couple, $16 for families.

You can buy a tape to play on your own equipment for $10.95 at the AudioWalk office or at bookstores, hotel gift shops and from the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The tape tour covers what has long been known as the "most historic square mile in America," a route that brings to life all the work, debate, idealism and drama that went into the "Miracle at Philadelphia" that created the constitutional foundation of democracy for a new nation.

The walk begins at the Liberty Bell Pavilion and the classic Georgian architecture of Independence Hall, where 55 delegates met in the Assembly Room in closed sessions from May 25 to Sept. 17, 1787.

In this room George Washington had been appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775. The Declaration of Independence was signed here on July 4, 1776.

Washington was called out of retirement to preside over the Constitutional Convention in an attempt to bring together a disintegrating confederation of states. We went inside for the 20-minute tour of Independence Hall conducted by the National Park Service.

Back outside, harpsichord music, recorded at Independence Hall for the AudioWalk tape, set the mood for imagining we were back in the 18th Century, walking brick sidewalks with "fashionable gentlemen in powdered wigs and velvet and satin clothes and their elegant ladies," along with "mechanics in felt hats, leather aprons and buckskin breeches; visiting farmers in homespun and moccasins, black slaves and freed men; sailors and an occasional Indian. . . ."

Second Largest

By the time of the Constitutional Convention, cosmopolitan Philadelphia was the second largest English-speaking city in the world, prospering far beyond the dreams of Quaker William Penn, who had founded it as part of his "holy experiment" of brotherly love and religious freedom in 1662.

After our lunch break at City Tavern we stopped at Visitors Center to view "Independence," the free 28-minute film on the origins of the nation, made here in the park by John Huston.

Carpenter's Hall beyond the Visitors Center reflected in the January sunlight the skills brought to the New World by some of the finest carpenters and craftsmen of Europe in the 18th Century.

Just across Chestnut Street, Franklin Court showcases the life of the man who became wealthy and famous after leaving Boston for Philadelphia as a 17-year-old because he felt that William Penn's city had the most to offer in the way of freedom and opportunity.

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