Penn History on Tour

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In a planning meeting for their 55th reunion last year, the Class of 1968 discussed taking alumni on a tour of the National Constitution Center. “I suggested we might also want to visit Penn’s first campus only a block away and other sites tied to the University, our founder Ben Franklin, and his other brainchild institutions,” recalls Conni Billé CW’68. She offered to draft up a tour of historic sites that would interest Penn alumni. It eventually became a 22-page booklet, listing 20 locations, a map, detailed histories, and images.

“I was a bit obsessed,” she says. “The research took a while and the list of Penn-related sites kept growing along with the research.” She had to keep tweaking the order to make it drivable on the city’s one-way streets.

A number of supportive classmates read and reviewed her drafts: Hans Binnendijk C’68, Michael Crow C’68 WG’70, Douglas Frenkel W’68 L’72, Carol Soiffer Greco CW’68 G’70, Elsie Sterling Howard CW’68, and Peter Marvin C’68 L’72. And during Alumni Weekend 2023, the Historic Philadelphia Tour for Penn Alumni map was put to the test with a bus tour for the class, complete with their very own Ben Franklin tour guide.

Unfortunately, “the drawbacks of driving in Center City traffic on a Friday afternoon, when you cannot pause and block traffic, became apparent,” admits Billé. “Nonetheless the response to the booklet and map has been uniformly positive and enthusiastic.”

She thinks the tour would best be done on motorized scooters, or, if walking, “do it one section at a time, depending on your energy and schedule.”

The entire area is less than a half square mile, bordering 2nd and Arch Streets at the northeast to 10th and Lombard Streets at the southwest. But packed into that small space, “there is so much to see,” says Billé.

Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, print by John Caspar Wild.

Rather than the University’s first campus at 4th and Arch Streets, or Franklin’s grave a block west at Christ Church Burial Ground, Billé’s favorite part of the tour, “hands down,” is “the story behind the destruction of the Pennsylvania Hall of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.” Infuriated racist mobs burned the structure to the ground four days after it opened in 1838. “But the ladies did not stop pursuing justice, and in the long run the ladies prevailed.” A plaque at 5th and Arch Streets marks the PFASS Headquarters site.

The map can be viewed at —NP

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