Travel: A Taste of Philadelphia; Geoff Hill Continues His Search for Innovation in the Home of the Grandfather of Invention, Benjamin Franklin

By Hill, Geoff | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), May 4, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Travel: A Taste of Philadelphia; Geoff Hill Continues His Search for Innovation in the Home of the Grandfather of Invention, Benjamin Franklin


Hill, Geoff, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


Outside the Rodin Museum, in Philadelphia, The Thinker sat with his elbow on the wrong knee, dripping with rain and thinking: "On the whole I'd rather be in Paris."

And up the road, City Hall was as, er, remarkable as the day it was finished in 1901, when it was deemed so ugly that the city fathers immediately decided to tear it down again, then realised that doing so would cost more than they'd spent building it.

However, it is not the most powerful building in the city: that grimly splendid honour must go to the Eastern State Penitentiary, a neo-gothic pile which glowers from high on a low hill to the north.

In its day this, too, was innovative: it was opened by the Quakers in the 1820s, on the rather strange principle that prisoners should spend their entire lives alone in a small room with only a Bible for company. The system was finally abandoned in 1913, after which it was adopted by travelling salesmen.

I left, significantly spooked, climbed back on board the trolleybus and rumbled on through the mist, until we ground at last to a damp halt outside Franklin Court, the former home of the ubiquitous Benjamin and today a museum to his omnipresent genius. The best bit, I had been told, is a telephone which you can pick up and hear the great and good voice their opinions on him, from the hagiographic to William Cobbett's scathing "a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite''.

Tragically, when I picked it up the line was dead, probably because Franklin hadn't paid the bill since 1790, so I walked over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a mammoth neoclassical edifice which contains every famous painting in the world, and most of the churches in Europe. At least it seems that way: after you've had your mind entirely boggled by a fine-art section packed with epoch-making works by everyone from Rubens to Warhol, you cross the hall and discover entire churches, cloisters, Hindu temples and Japanese teahouses.

Anyway, that was quite enough culture for one day: I returned to the hotel's Irish bar, had another innovative poteen martini, and returned to my room in the bamboo forest.

I don't know what effect all this fresh air was having on the other guests, but it was making me incredibly libidinous: I've never had so many nights of passion in my life. If there'd been someone with me, it would have been even better.

The next morning, thunder pummelled the earth and lightning split the sky. Torrential rain washed spiders from their ancestral gutters and sent baffled frogs bodysurfing down the boulevards. Franklin, who invented the lightning rod, would have been pleased.

Mmmm. It looked very much like a shopping day, and I knew just the place.

The King of Prussia Mall, half an hour out of town, has 450 shops, 35 restaurants serving 13,415 meals a day and nine department stores. Every year it has 18 million visitors, spending $950 million. That's more than the population of Sweden, so the next time you go to Stockholm and there's no one there, you'll know they're all in Philadelphia shopping.

If it was big you were after, this was the cutting edge of innovation, but as I wandered around I became increasingly baffled that there could be enough people in the world to buy all this stuff.

Just as every church in Europe seemed to be in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, every shop in America seemed to be here. I imagine that some day the museum will acquire these vast department stores, these cathedrals of consumerism, so that people can wander around them and say: "My, how they lived!"

Oh, it was no use. It was too grown-up, all this buying and selling. Laden with a pair of shoes and six pairs of socks which I had no recollection of buying, I decamped through the rain to the Franklin Institute Science Museum, dedicated to the great man's spirit of invention, and spent the afternoon wandering around the aviation hall wondering exactly how it was that we got from Wright Flyer to Space Shuttle in 78 years.

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