– by Melissa Stevens (World Heritage Coordinator, Global Philadelphia Association)
What do you picture when you think of “Philadelphia heritage”? Or the Founding Fathers crafting the Constitution? How about children building rocket ships and having tea parties with the Mad Hatter? Philadelphia became a World Heritage City in 2015 in large part because of our historic achievements and our rich array of historic sites. But recognizing the illustrious history of Philadelphia is only half the story.
We are a World Heritage City because of who we are today and how we have taken what we inherited from past generations – the places, ideas, values, and culture – and made it our own. Heritage is alive. And so are our historic places. Many of these relics and reminders of our past can be found right here in Parkside today. Parkside’s Memorial Hall is a wonderful example of living heritage and the reinvention of a historic site.
Memorial Hall was built as the art gallery for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was the first major World’s Fair in the United States. After the Exhibition, Memorial Hall was reinvented several times: as the first home of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts, as a recording studio for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and as a recreation center.
Today, this National Historic Landmark is home to the Please Touch Museum, where children, rockets, and the Mad Hatter have become part of Philadelphia’s World Heritage story.
Not Far from Memorial Hall is another reminder of Philadelphia”s rich and varied heritage. Shofuso Japanese House and Garden is another Parkside historic site that has undergone several transformations.
Originally, the site was home to a 14th century gate from a Japanese Buddhist temple brought to the US for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. After a fire destroyed the gate, the Shofuso House was installed in its place in 1957.
The house was originally built in Japan in 1953, using traditional materials and techniques, for an exhibition on Japanese influences on mid-century modern American architecture. Today, the historic site and museum hosts over 30,000 visitors annually.
Historic Belmont Mansion is another example of how Parkside is constantly reinventing itself.
Built in the 18th century as the residence of an English lawyer and farmer, today it is an underground railroad museum, highlighting the history and culture of African Americans, who make up the majority of Parkside’s current population. Parkside’s historic places are living heritage sites, where the neighborhood’s past generations left their mark, and where current residents go to connect with their roots and imagine their futures.