When WXPN host Robert Drake was on a first-grade field trip, he underwent a Philadelphia rite of passage — one that’s conjured everything from existential dread to unadulterated joy in millions of hearts across the region.
He climbed through the Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute.
Once inside the heart — which is 100 times wider than a human ticker — Drake, now 56, got so freaked he refused to budge and had to be “rescued” by staffers.
“Honestly I think it was the ever-present beating of the heart … I recall it only got louder with each turn,” he said.
Now that beating sound — which was computer generated — has been replaced by the real sounds of a human heart as part of the first renovation to the beloved Philly artifact in 16 years.
But don’t worry — this wasn’t a total eclipse of the heart, just an upgrade.
Pumped up in time for Valentine’s Day, the seven-week, $180,000 renovation to the 66-year-old heart also included new lighting and audio equipment as well as a paint job inside and out by V.U.R.T. Creative of North Philly, the same folks who painted the mural of a squirrel eating a SEPTA token.
“I was blown away by the chance to do it,” said head painter Evan Lovett. “To be able to paint a piece of history is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
In honor of Valentine’s Day, The Inquirer asked for people’s memories of the Giant Heart on Twitter.
From a former Franklin Institute staffer who dished on what employees were told to look out for, to the universally recognized-but-hard-to-define odor of the oversize organ, people recall the Giant Heart as a visceral part of their Philly experience.
But that happened by accident.
The Giant Heart wasn’t supposed to be permanent, but when Philadelphians fall in love with something and claim it as their own, you can’t pry it out of their cold, dead hands. Even if it is made of chicken wire.
“This is a passionate city and it’s a city that loves its nostalgia and iconic pieces,” said Larry Dubinksi, president and CEO of the Franklin. “You never know what’s going to get people excited, but for years and years, this has.”
Opened in 1954, the Giant Heart was the brainchild of physician Mildred Pfeiffer, who worked with a medical illustrator and engineer to design the 28-foot wide and 18-foot high heart out of wood, papier-mâché, and chicken wire.
“It’s one of those things, as a designer, you’re like, ‘How do you purposefully create something like that?’” said Abby Bysshe, the Franklin’s vice president of experiences and business development. “It’s this amazing experience that was well ahead of its time.”
That heart took a licking and kept on ticking until 1979, when it was rebuilt with fiberglass. The heart has gone through several upgrades since, the last in 2004.
The new heartbeat — which is now zoned based on your place within the heart — was drawn from a database of heart sounds at Johns Hopkins University.
Lovett used paints like “crimson red” and “tutti frutti pink” to make the colors vibrant and accurate.
His favorite part?
“Re-rendering the fat deposits on the heart,” he said. “It’s just a pop of color and texture that looks accurately gross.”
By repainting the heart and replacing the flooring, Dubinski said the museum has removed what many remember as the heart’s “distinctive smell.”
Philadelphians’ recollections of that odor range from “stinky" and "strange” to “general funk” and “belly button.”
David Slade, 54, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., remembers the smell from when he visited while growing up in Wynnewood.
“It was the childhood equivalent of going into a basement dive bar (very cool),'” he said. “Narrow stairs, thumping bass, graffiti, smelled funny."
Kissing your crush inside the heart was the pinnacle of puppy love for many kids in the area.
“If you didn’t have your first kiss in the Giant Heart on a school field trip are you even Philadelphian?” said Andrew Athias, 27, of Old City.
Lauren Vidas worked as a science demonstrator at the museum and said staffers were told to be on the lookout for people canoodling inside the heart.
“We were trained on keeping an eye out for couples that spent too much time inside,” Vidas, 39, of Graduate Hospital, said. “Also one of the closing tasks was to do a final walk through to make sure people weren’t hiding in it.”
Local comic Nick Kupsey’s dream was to sleep inside the heart, but his fifth-grade class instead was forced to stay in the atrium during an overnight visit.
“To retaliate for our horrible lodging conditions, me and some friends snuck into the heart before everyone went to sleep and farted in it a few times,” he said. “Childish? Yes. Worth it? 100%.”
Some said the tight confines of the heart made them claustrophobic, while others said the heartbeat filled them with a deep sense of dread.
But not Megan Neitzke, 30, who kept the heartbeat on during her wedding reception at the Giant Heart.
“You want a heart full of life if you’re celebrating love," she said.
In the mid-2000s, the Franklin hosted weddings at the Giant Heart, where as many as 16 couples were married and more than 100 couples renewed their vows at once.
And staffers said they’ve had doctors tell them they entered medicine because they loved the heart as a child.
Justin Sherin, whose dad brought him from Palmyra, N.J., to visit the heart as a kid, said it was his “favorite place on earth” until he was 12. Now a playwright, Sherin, 38, remembers how the Giant Heart helped him realize the real heart is “a perfect machine.”
“All this power and efficiency in a tiny motor that never stops. It thinks of everything, gets the job done in a way you don’t expect,” he said. “Which is what Ben Franklin tried to do in all aspects of his life. That’s why it’s there.”