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November 30, 2017

To do: Free, indoor architectural tours as temperatures drop

With winter closing in, check out these free, guided tours and explore your city

From the early, quintessential brick houses on Elfreth’s Alley in Old City to the likes of the Comcast Center skyscraper, Philadelphia has an impressive range of architectural specimens (with credentials, to boot). The University of Pennsylvania has the nation's second oldest architecture program, and a roster of internationally acclaimed architects have come from or designed in Philly, including: Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, and Robert Venturi.

But don’t take our word for it. See these buildings for yourself, on a free, guided architectural tour (perfect for cold, winter days).

Kimmel Center

The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia’s premier performing arts center, sits atop the Broad Street subway line. Yes, that makes it convenient for audience members to get to concerts using public transit, but it also means that the whooshing of trains passing underground has the potential to disrupt orchestral performances of Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach. How did the architects resolve this cacophonous conundrum?

These details – and more – are included on the Kimmel Center’s free guided tours. Hour-long tours are offered daily at 1 p.m., and specialized architecture tours take place one Saturday morning per month (see their website for more details).

Parkway Central Free Library

The Beaux-Arts style of the Free Library’s Parkway Central branch matches the impressive stature of its lead designing architect, Julian Abele, who was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts. Abele was designing both the Free Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the same time, architecturally bookending the Parkway with buildings that have since become landmarks.

Free daily tours begin in the lobby (check website as times vary), and often segue into the free tour of the Rare Book Department where “Grip” – Charles Dickens’ pet raven that inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his famous poem on the subject – is now stuffed and mounted.


Cedar Grove

Five generations of a local family have dwelled in the historic Cedar Grove stone house since it was first built in 1748, but none of them ever lived in Fairmount Park, where the house is located today. 

Fully relocated to Fairmount in the 1920s for preservation purposes, the home is now administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and houses an impressive collection of decorative items and historic objects, such as: an 1809 wedding dress, a (then innovative) kitchen water boiler, early Pennsylvanian furniture, and, outside, a maintained colonial herb garden.

Admission is free with museum admission, or on the first Sunday of the month.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall is where (you guessed it) the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed. But plenty of other things of note happened in this Georgian style brick building built in 1732. For 25 years in the early 1800s, the top floors of Independence Hall served as the museum of celebrated portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale, and contained over 100,000 display objects (some paintings, but mostly taxidermied birds, fish, and quadrupeds). In the early 1850s, the room directly above where the Declaration of Independence was signed was used as a courtroom for fugitive slave hearings.

Free tours are offered multiple times per hour, and throughout the year.

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The largest brownstone structure in Philadelphia isn’t a municipal building or a townhouse – it’s the Cathedral, open since 1864 and visited by no less than two Popes. The structure has juicy anecdotes, nonetheless – when it finally opened to the public after around 20 years of construction, Abraham Lincoln was still President. The Cathedral’s next door neighbor at the time was Asia Booth Clarke, sister of Lincoln’s assassin. (Her mansion has since been converted into the Cathedral’s northbound parking lot, and you can make of that what you will.)

A Cathedral representative is at the Basilica most days to answer questions and take visitors on a tour. For more information or to arrange a tour in advance, call the Parish Office.

Christ Church

This historic church’s steeple may not look exceptionally steep now, but for 56 years it made Christ Church the tallest structure on the continent. That was back in the 18th century, when big names like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Betsy Ross (who lived around the corner) were regular parishioners.

Things have since changed, and Old City’s mixed-use high-rises now dwarf the brick Episcopal sanctuary. But take one of the church’s free 20-minute tours to find out about the building, and the neighborhood, back when five stories was considered the height of grandeur.