Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Six feet under, solitary confinement and some “scientific oddities” in good old Philadelphia

Kelly Drive in Philadelphia slides between grand statues to the east and sculls along the lazy Schuylkill River to the west. It’s just a few minutes out of town to the pearly iron gates of Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Back in the 19th century – long before the river road we’re cruising – a barge brought Philly’s high society upriver to their final resting places. The departed have a marvelous view across the river in a necropolis of Calder sculptures, winding arboretum pathways, and wild stories galore. We find it easy – and fun – to get lost among huge Victorian monuments that mark the graves of scientists, industrialists, revolutionaries, and all manner of uppity folk.

Every grave is telltale, and the monuments provide the narrative. “This carved broken urn means he died a violent death,” Ross Mitchell tells us. “Here lies a man killed by his butler. No joke.” Ross is the un-ghoulishly happy gent who runs the joint. He shows us “millionaire’s row,” where the founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the inventor of the flexible saw blade (who made a nice piece of change during the Industrial Revolution) and the inventors of the modern public transit system are all in neighboring mausoleum mansions. Ross takes us into one with a staircase deep into the earth and we get the creepy feel of a lot more than six feet under.

There’s even a gravestone marked “Adrian Balboa.” Yup, Rocky’s wife is buried here. Well, at least in the movie. Her gravestone prop is to be well maintained in perpetuity.

The old marble stones suffer from acid rain. Mournful heroic angels and blunted obelisks reach to the sky in agony. We see Laurel Hill the way Henry James described the city of Venice. We feel “the sad elegance of ruin…”

Six Titanic passengers and 40 Civil War-era generals rest here. And every New Year’s Eve at noon, champagne flows free to the public at the graveside of General Meade, who won the battle of Gettysburg. The promise of free bubbly seals the deal for our return and we head downriver, past a classic Frederick Remington cowboy sculpture, toward the imposing edifice of Eastern State Penitentiary.

But all that whistling through the graveyard has us hungry. Luckily Philly’s ancient Victorian Water Works is right on the way, and now a splendid neoclassical restaurant. We slurp lobster bisque among huge columns of the ancient pump house and munch garbanzo salsa overlooking Schuylkill waterfalls. Behind us looms Philly’s iconic Museum of Art. (Adrian!)

Tummies full, we creep into Eastern State Pen. The miserable souls who wound up here were given a bible and a cold stone cell and a few years to sit and think about things. Sean Kelly, the current “warden” of these architectural ruins, gives us a similar tour to the one that inspired Charles Dickens to proclaim the place “cruel and wrong” back in 1842. We have to agree.

“Basically, instead of rehabbing criminals, the solitary confinement drove ‘em crazy,” says Sean. Since we’re fresh from the graveyard, we ask about spooks. “Oh there’s ghosts aplenty, I’m sure. The paranormal experts are crawling around here all the time.”

We crawl around to the former cell of Al Capone, who did time here on a gun charge in ‘29. The mobster’s pad is the Ritz compared to the surrounding dank cells. There’s a polished desk, a comfy bed, even a console radio to bring waltz music into his little corner of haunted hell.

But all this delightful despair is just a warm up for the macabre Mütter Museum, an unsettling collection from the old College of Physician’s. Being a bit squeamish we’re glad to have the prison between it and our lobster bisque. We gawk at what they call “fluid-preserved anatomical specimens.” We call them a variety of human head slices, the shared liver from the original “Siamese” twins and an assortment of 2000 completely weird objects that people found a way to swallow 100 years ago. (Much, much weirder than the garbanzo salsa.)

Thank goodness we have a bed worthy of Capone waiting for us near Rittenhouse Square and reservations at our favorite Italian BYOB. Maybe after dinner we’ll see you strolling the square, or heading out of town toward the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For a map with photos of all these places and more, go to www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.)

Laurel Hill Cemetery

Guided tours of this hauntingly beautiful 78-acre cemetery cum arboretum cum sculpture garden are held one Sunday each month. Tour themes include “Sinners, Scandals and Suicides” and “ Dead White Republicans.” Say hello to Ross Mitchell, who runs the necropolis and whistle through the coolest graveyard you’ll ever see. Check out their lively website at theundergroundmuseum.org.

Hi-yo outdoor art! (Tim: the Frederick Remington cowboy statue. Maybe this gets inserted within the text of the piece in some fun way.)

Philly has more outdoor art than Paris. Along the Kelly Drive you’ll find statue after statue, including this Frederick Remington masterwork rearing up over the Schuylkill River.

The Water Works Restaurant

Originally one of the country’s first and largest municipal water works, this architectural marvel is as beautiful as it is delicious. Overlooking the Schuylkill River falls and surrounded by Fairmount Park gardens. Tucked behind the Museum of Art, just off Kelly Drive. Online at thewaterworksrestaurant.com.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Sean Kelly is the current “warden” of this amazing and haunted jailhouse. Take the tour and you’ll see why Alcatraz has nothing on the original granddaddy of American prison lore. On Fairmount Avenue at 21st Street. On the web: easternstate.org.

Rittenhouse 1715

Just about a half block from fashionable Rittenhouse Square, this beautiful boutique inn is bigger than a B&B, but much more personal than a big-box hotel. Luxurious, incredible comfortable and an easy walk to everywhere. At 1715 Rittenhouse Square Street with a great website at rittenhouse1715.com.

Melograno Tuscan Bistro

Luca’s from Rome and knows how to run an Italian kitchen. His wife Rose is Vietnamese-American and knows how to make you feel welcome. Their unique chemistry creates some of the best food you’ll ever have in front of you. You’re nuts not to try the homemade papardelle. BYOB to 22nd & Spruce. Call 215.875.8116 and ask Rose about tonight’s special.

10th Street Pour House

Walk a few blocks and get yourself a real breakfast. Great coffee, splendid Eggs Benedict and a Tex-Mex omelet that just won’t quit. Arguably the best home fries in town. 262 S. 10th Street, between Spruce and Locust. 215.922.5626.

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to shunpiker@visitpa.com.

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