I have written before about my job interview at the Inquirer and my first morning in Philadelphia.
I had packed two alarm clocks (this was long before smart phones) as I worried about oversleeping (I was a sports photographer then, and not accustomed to waking up early). I didn’t want to make my potential boss wait when he stopped to pick me up on the way to work. So I wandered around looking at big city things - like sidewalk cellar delivery doors - that were unfamiliar to me. But I was careful to stick close to my hotel.
I had no idea I was staying only two blocks from Independence Hall. I could have quickly wandered over and peeked into “the room where it happened.” Where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted (this was also before 9/11 when you could actually walk right up to the building).
And yes, I know the song composed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda actually refers to the Compromise of 1790 and a dinner in New York City, not the room in Philadelphia. But there is something I have always cherished about working in this city - where the birth of our country actually did happen - especially around the Fourth of July.
Maybe I have just been making up for that first missed opportunity to walk the exact same streets as the Founders. But since that morning (spoiler alert: I got the job) whenever I am nearby on assingment I always meander around the city’s historic district.
As Abraham Lincoln said, stopping at Independence Hall on his way to Washington D. C. to be sworn in as our 16th president on Feb. 22, 1861:
“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live …”
I was recently walking along Chestnut Street, one block over from Independence Hall, where — embedded in the sidewalk — is our city’s own “Walk of Fame.” It’s called the “Signers’ Walk,” and it celebrates the 56 members of the Second Continental Congress, who agreed to a military response to the hostilities between England’s troops and its American colonists, appointed George Washington as commander of the militia, and on July 4, 1776, cut all remaining ties by unanimously approving the Declaration of Independence.
The plaques were originally on the north side of Market Street, on the mall before the 2001 redesign of Independence Mall with the construction of the Independence Visitor Center. Back then it was called the Judge Edwin O. Lewis Quadangle and the centerpiece was the large Lewis Fountain.
Once, each plaque included one of the delegates’ signatures and a circular cameo portrait. Before the life-size statues in Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center were created, seeing the portraits was many tourists’ first impression of what some of the lesser known signers looked like.
But whether it was the work of “shopping-cart scavengers” looking for scrap metal to recycle or the “salvagers” and antique-dealer middlemen, the cast-iron gates, window grates, stained glass, mantels, and other artifacts and building parts disappeared, which is nothing new in pillaged historic Philadelphia.
They have robbed so many Philadelphia neighborhoods of their distinctive architectural character. Even the city’s most prominent architectural treasure - City Hall - has not been spared. Which brings me to the lion at the top of this column.
There were once almost 150 small lion heads on the ornate bronze fence that surrounds City Hall. They, like most of the salutary on the building - including the big one of William Penn - were designed by Alexander Milne Calder.
Two decades ago I did a story with former Inquirer columnist, Tom Ferrick, Jr. who had been chronicling the numerous cases of artifact theft for years. In a celebrated tale, he wrote of a tipster spotting four of the familiar-looking lions at a New York antique show in 2001, tagged for sale at $1,300 for the set.
Ferrick tracked them down to a dealer in Lambertville, across the river from New Hope, where the owner said he purchased them at a flea market.
After the story, my son, who was about eight at the time, and I walked all the way around City Hill, looking for the few lions that remained on the fence. Like Ferrick, we counted over 100 missing.
One of the city’s most famous cases of stolen architectural artifacts occurred on a winter night in 1998. Someone pulled up to St. Peter’s Church in Society Hill and stole a huge pair of 18th century wrought-iron gates. They were seven feet tall, and each weighed between 300 and 400 pounds.
A few years earlier, many of the fence sections at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) had to restored at a cost of a quarter million dollars before the school opened. They were stolen while the building - the former Ridgeway Library - stood empty and abandoned for thirty years (it was featured for its dystopian decay in the post-apocalyptic movie “Twelve Monkeys”).
And as recently as this past March, some antique doors were stolen off their hinges on a Spring Garden apartment building.
After my visit to “Signers’ Walk,” I happened to be in Center City with my grandson, who is about the same age his uncle was when we made that lion-counting walk around City Hall. I told him the story, and of course, history had to repeat itself.
And I am happy to report that a generation later, it appears that no more lions have disappeared.
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: