Think Outside the Cheesesteak

The Rocky Cliche: Columnist Daniel Rubin argues Philly needs to start thinking beyond the cliches to market itself as a tourism hot spot. How about it's place as a revolution hot spot?

City officials have been trying to attract conventioneers with a campaign called “Philadelphia, The Complete Package,” which pictures the usual suspects — Independence Hall, the Rocky statue, the Liberty Bell — rising over the gleaming skyline.

Here’s another idea, courtesy of George Thomas, an architectural historian at Penn: Think outside the cheesesteak.

Philadelphia banks on its central role in the American Revolution to draw visitors. Why not, Thomas asks, capitalize on its role in seven other revolutions? He could see a pitch called, “Philadelphia, birthplace of the modern world.”
Let’s look at this chronologically.

The first revolution took place well before 1776, when Billy Penn eyed these sylvan woods as a place where Quakers could settle peacefully. They believed God was within everyone, so men and women of all races and creeds were equal.

Tough to find a building from that era, but Thomas suggests starting at the corner of Fifth and Race where Catholic, Methodist and Quaker houses of worship are within shouting distance. That sort of diversity was radical 300 years ago.

There was another trendsetting innovation before Independence, and for that credit Boston-transplant Ben Franklin, who reimagined the way colonials were educated. The elites of New England were schooled in Latin and Greek and prepared for careers as ministers and lawyers. Franklin’s College of Philadelphia taught courses in natural history, emerging sciences and foreign languages that were actually still spoken somewhere. You could tell this story at Franklin Court, at Third and Market, or at Franklin’s school, now called the University of Pennsylvania.

The third revolution would be the American Revolution. We’ve got plenty of places around that interpret that event, so let’s move on.

The fourth, like the third, owes something to the first, the one begun by those tolerant Quakers. Because they believed in personal responsibility, they expected their children to work, not just cut coupons. In the 1860s, a Quaker mechanical engineer named William Sellers (pictured) established industrial standards, so a machine made in Philly could be repaired in Chicago. Celebrate Sellers at the Franklin Institute — he was its president.

For revolution No. 5 check out the buildings of Frank Furness and the paintings and sculptures of Thomas Eakins (FURN-ess and ACHE-ins for those, like me, who get confused). Local industrialists hired them and encouraged their development of organic forms that followed functionality, their notion that art reflects the contemporary world. Thomas would start this tour at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Extra points if you can name the sixth revolution started here. Frederick Winslow Taylor analyzed how people worked and achieved tremendous increases in productivity. His scientific management method made it possible to double salaries and increase time for leisure. This Exeter grad worked as a laborer at Midvale Steel, now an empty space under the Roosevelt Boulevard. Plant a plaque for the father of all management consultants.

This led to revolution No. 7, what Thomas’ partner, Susan Snyder, called the age of consumption. Workers in the 1880s could now buy their own homes, keep their kids in school and wives at home, and still have enough cash for a week at the shore. We could honor this civilized improvement on Market Street, where 14 department stores once served the masses.

That leaves one last revolution. For that, visit Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering, which in 1946 ushered in the computer age with the invention of ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. It was the world’s first electronic digital computer, a monstrosity that filled an entire room. A half-century later, a Penn group recreated ENIAC on a microchip the size of a pimple.

The question Philadelphia ought to ask itself isn’t how do we fill hotel beds or convention rooms. It’s “How do we recapture our creative mojo?” Thomas said, “be a place that is about the future?”