Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens, & Winterthur in the Spring

I leave Cuernavaca every May to return to Western New York to visit family, friends, and former colleagues, and to celebrate Mother’s Day. Mom is 104 and still living independently. In the past I have usually taken advantage of being in NY to connect to JFK and fly to Europe, but I wasn’t ready for that yet given the Covid situation. Departing from JFK, I would usually spend several days in Manhattan to attend theater or a dance concert. I am still playing it safe on Covid and not entering large auditoriums with hundreds of people. I decided to make a long overdue visit to Philadelphia. Having taught American History, I should have visited the historic sites long ago, but what really tempted me was the proximity of Longwood Gardens and Winterthur, long on my wish list. The New York Times travel pages have featured the Brandywine Valley in several articles including this one in 2013: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/travel/36-hours-in-the-brandywine-valley-pa.html?searchResultPosition=6.

Due to location, I chose the Marriott Old City, adjacent to the waterfront and to Independence Mall with its museums honoring American independence. Knowing that arrival and departure would limit touring on those days, I booked five nights, May 16-21. I prefer to book directly with the hotel, but their online reservation system offered only non-refundable reservations, I went to booking.com which has a generous cancellation policy.

The flight on American Airlines from Rochester NY to Philly took just over an hour, followed by a long walk from the landing gate to baggage claim. There was no huge line of cabs waiting like that at JFK but I had to wait only a few minutes for a tax. I later learned that Uber dominates local transportation in the city and taxis are sometimes hard to come by. I was at the hotel in less than half an hour.

I had a spacious room with excellent internet but a long walk from the elevator. The ice machine was inconveniently on another floor requiring another walk. The hotel offers a breakfast restaurant with prices a bit lower than I usually pay in Manhattan. The other option is a coffee bar with just muffins. There is no meal service in the afternoon or evening, just a pantry with refrigerated fast foods one can microwave in the lobby. But the historic district has numerous excellent restaurants in various price ranges.

 I had time after check-in at the Marriott to walk to the nearby Museum of the American Revolution, open until 5 pm; timed tickets bought online are not required as they are for the art museums. Hours and ticket prices are posted at https://www.amrevmuseum.org.

Frankly, I was a bit disappointed with the collection which tends more to graphics than antiques, and I was in and out in 90 minutes. It was nice to see large groups of grade-school students led by their teachers and escorts. It made me wonder why so many U.S. schools send groups to Washington DC but not many to Philadelphia which can be combined with Valley Forge and Gettysburg.

That evening I walked to a restaurant on the Penn’s Landing waterfront, forgetting my umbrella and getting wet in a surprise shower. Many restaurants close in Philly on Monday, and I passed several that were shuttered. I had hoped to dine on the deck of a three-mast schooner, Moshulu. The rain forced diners inside and it was fairly crowded requiring a 20-minute wait for a table, not bad for lacking a reservation. I had only a porthole view of the Delaware River. The large menu offered plenty of variety at fairly steep prices, no surprise given the venue. The weather had cleared by the time I walked back to the hotel, assured by the staff that the area was not dangerous.

The most famous museums in the city are closed on Tuesday: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the Rodin Museum. That made Tuesday the perfect day to visit the historical sites, and the weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot. It was a five-block walk to 5th and Walnut where the multi-block mall begins at Independence Hall. This is not a site where one may wander freely; all entrances are in groups.  I had failed to do proper research and discovered that timed tickets had to be purchased online. I approached a National Park guide in the garden and begged for an exception, claiming old age and a long trip from Mexico, and she kindly let me join the next group. There were about 50 people of all ages in the group, including a child in a stroller.  It took about twenty minutes to listen to the guide in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the hall where the constitutional convention was held in 1787.

Just across the street from Independence Hall sits the Liberty Bell Center. I had no plans to stand in line to see the famous bell, but there was only a short line moving quickly, and I was in the center within ten minutes. The only delay was for those lining up to be photographed in front of the bell or to take a selfie. I could take a photo over their heads. As expected, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Next in line of buildings is the Visitor’s Center where I got a map superior to what the hotel receptionist gave me. And then the National Constitution Center. Alas, the museum opens only Wednesday through Sunday with timed tickets from 10 am to 5 pm, so I was out of luck on a Tuesday. Judging by the photos on its website, I’m not too disappointed. https://constitutioncenter.org.

Among the most popular tourist sites in the city is the Reading Terminal Market, in a historic building on Arch Street since 1893. I remembered how much I enjoyed the Pike Place market in Seattle, and it was nearing lunch time, so I set off on a 15-minute walk from Independence Mall. With over 80 merchants displaying fresh produce, flowers, and prepared food, I was not surprised to find the aisles crowded with hundreds of people. The cheese and cold cut stalls and the fresh fish and seafood would tempt me to return often if I lived here. It was hard to decide what to eat, and the pastrami and Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwiches were especially tempting. The latter is so huge I knew I couldn’t finish it and had no place for leftovers, so I never got to taste the iconic sandwich. Instead, I chose one of my favorites, a lobster salad sandwich for 23 dollars. It was hard to find an unoccupied seat in the food court at lunch time but I found a place next to two Brits escaping from a convention. The convention center is across the street from the market. I was tempted to ingest more calories at the famous Bassett’s Ice Cream stand, but the line was too long.   

Despite the market, convention center, and several hotels nearby, I walked around for 15 minutes, unable to find a taxi. I could have called an Uber, but instead I walked to a nearby Marriott hotel and waited for an arrival by taxi. During the drive back to the historic district, I negotiated with the driver to take me the next day to Longwood Gardens. I did not want to rent a car, face traffic and unfamiliar exits on a beltway, navigate construction warnings I’d read about online, and use the car only part of a day. The garden web site offered no advice on public transportation for the 30-mile trip from the city. I had phoned the central taxi office and was quoted one-hundred dollars each way and 25 dollars per hour wait time. The taxi driver said he would take me for 200 dollars total including a several-hour wait time.

Longwood Gardens is one of several former estates in the du Pont family heritage. The area was populated by Native Americans, then by Quaker farmers. George Peirce established a farm there in 1700 and his heirs added an enormous tree farm. The heirs lost interest in the farm and arboretum and were going to sell the timber to a lumber company in 1906. Instead, Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) purchased the land and farm house, expanding both over the years and adding formal gardens where he could entertain guests during his weekend visits. His wealth came from his management of the du Pont chemical company of which he was president 1915-1919. The company was founded in 1802 and prospered from the sale of gun powder, especially during World War I. Pierre also became manager and later president of General Motors.

Pierre du Pont opened his gardens to the public in 1921. In 1937 he put it in the hands of a foundation, to which he left a huge endowment when he died in 1954,  

The property of over 1000 acres includes the seven-acre Peirce old-growth forest, numerous out buildings, an enormous conservatory, an open-air theater, and a water-fountain park with spectacular shows posted on the daily schedule. Over a million visitors a year traverse its lengthy paths.

The driver, Muhammed, picked me up at the hotel at 9:30 am Wednesday May 18. He followed the verbal instructions on his dashboard device to take me to Kennett Square, PA,  and we were at the Visitor Center of Longwood Gardens by 10:15. My timed ticket, purchased online, was for 11 am, but I was allowed in early. If one arrives without a timed ticket, admission depends on how many people are in the gardens. It was very crowded when I left at 1:30 p.m.

The conservatory is one of the largest I have visited in many gardens in many countries. It houses 4600 types of flowers and trees with rooms devoted to different species, like the large colorful orchid collection.

After walking for three hours, I would not have had the energy to visit nearby Winterthur on the same day. Pleased with Muhammed’s driving, I contracted him for a drive the next day to Winterthur Delaware near Wilmington, about 35 miles from Philly.

The Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library  

The museum is alleged to be the largest collection of American decorative arts in the world with about 70 thousand objects. The property covers close to one thousand acres, 60 devoted to gardens. The furnishings in the museum hold works from 1640 to 1860. The property was purchased by E.I. du Pont, in 1810.  He and his heirs added to the sheep farm and enlarged and embellished it over the years. Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), antique collector and horticulturalist inherited the property in 1927. Having accumulated so many antiquities, he turned his home into a museum in 1951, moving his residence to an adjacent building. Another large gallery was added during the 1960s. The library with 87 thousand volumes is used for research and college classes.

While I enjoyed the museum, I had really gone to see more gardens and I was disappointed to discover that it holds no annuals, just perennials, and not many in bloom. The 3000 azaleas are spread over 25 miles of paths on which the tram covers only a small part.  The peony garden was beautiful but many plants had already dropped their flowers, and a later variety had not yet bloomed. Different flowers bloom in different months and one could contact the office for more information. https://www.winterthur.org.  

After the drive back and lunch near the hotel, I was too tired after to consider a late entrance to one of the city’s famous museums. After a siesta, I went online and bought timed entry tickets for the next day, 11 am for the Barnes Foundation, and 1:30 pm for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I figured I could rest and have lunch between museum visits, and both places have cafeterias. I knew I could not include the Rodin Museum as well. I had been to the large Rodin Museum in Paris, and I had enjoyed the sculpture collection at the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City,  including many works by Rodin.

Both Museums are a 15-minute cab ride from the historic district and I got to The Barnes Foundation several minutes before my 11 am entry ticket. I had never before put a ticket receipt on my cell phone and was pleased at how well that worked out at both museums. 

Despite what I had read online I was overwhelmed by the size and the spectacular beauty of the collection. There is no point in trying to paraphrase this description from its web site:

The Barnes is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings, with especially deep holdings in Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951, the collection also includes important examples of African art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde painting, and wrought-iron metalwork. https://barnesfoundation.org.

The 4000 piece collection includes numerous antiques in addition to the 900 paintings whose value is estimated at 25 billion dollars. Amazing that Albert Barnes earned a fortune developing a treatment for gonorrhea, among other achievements described in this article in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_Foundation.

I was shocked initially to discover that none of the paintings have the usual small plaque to identify the artist, title, and date. There are docents in every room, and a kind young woman put the museum’s app on my cell phone. One holds the phone up to each painting as if to take a picture, and a screen appears on the phone with all the information, including a brief history. Later in the day, the foundation sent me an email with a small copy of every item I pointed my phone at.

Reading about every painting took much more time than a usual museum visit and I skimmed rather rapidly through the ten rooms on the second floor, leaving the building at 1:00 pm. It was about a twenty-minute walk to the Philadelphia Art Musuem, passing the Rodin collection on the way. The entrance at the top of the “Rocky steps,” made famous in the 1974 film, was closed temporarily so it was another five minutes to the north entrance. There I let reception scan my ticket, then I collapsed at a table in the cheerful cafeteria with a sizable menu at reasonable prices. One could also go through a cafeteria line in another room and choose already cooked items. I needed a leisurely lunch to rest my legs for the enormity of what was to follow. One could easily spend the entire day here and not do justice to the entire collection. It is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, requiring good planning for a visitor’s calendar. https://www.philamuseum.org.

As usual, it’s hard to beat the history and description of the collection available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_Museum_of_Art.

Already quite tired and saturated, I moved rapidly from room to room and didn’t even attempt to read many of the descriptive plaques. It was foolish on my part to think that I could do two treasure houses in one day. But flying in and out of Philadelphia takes up two days and with museums closed for a day or two, you can’t do both gardens and all the museums in a five-day trip. I certainly got to do much of what I had come for and departed knowing how much more there was to see in the delightful city of Philadelphia and the nearby Brandywine Valley.

A Brief Note on Dining in Philadelphia.

There are scores of great restaurants in the city, and many good ones in the historic district. One can find descriptions, web sites, and menus online. My favorite is the formerly famous Bookbinder’s, now under new ownership and called The Olde Bar. It’s on 25 Walnut Street, just around the corner from the Marriott. I had expected to dine alone during this trip but was delighted to learn that two expat friends in Cuernavaca spend part of the year in their apartment near Rittenhouse Square. John & Joan Markovitch met me two nights for dinner, including a nice evening at The Olde Bar.   http://theoldebar.com.

15 thoughts on “Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens, & Winterthur in the Spring

  1. Dear Jim,

    As always, your description of your recent trip is fascinating. So well written, and the places come alive as you describe them! I visited Philadelphia years ago and enjoyed it a lot; went to the Rodin collection and to the main art museum, but it was winter, and I didn’t visit any of the gardens. I said I would get back, but so far, I haven’t done that, so it was especially nice to read your description and see your excellent photos. You did SO MUCH in the days that you had there! I think you were very wise to get drivers to take you to the Longwood Gardens and Winterthur; as you said, why should you have the stress of driving on unfamiliar highways which may be undergoing construction and having to fight with traffic – much better to arrive in style and calmly.

    I do remember eating at the Reading Terminal Market – great place for lunch, and I did have a Philly steak sandwich; I think I split it with the friend I was visiting there; as you say, they are huge. The flower photos from Longwood are breathtaking. What a good time of the year to visit, even if a few varieties hadn’t yet opened or were past their prime. And you were ahead of the real summer tourist season, another plus.

    I did go to Bookbinder’s while it was still under the old name and had a marvelous dinner. How nice that two of your expat friends from Cuernavaca were at their apartment in Philly and were able to join you for dinner. It sounds like a very enjoyable trip and I’m so glad you had an excellent time.

    And your mom…..now 104! It’s hard to believe, and especially since she is so hale and hearty. She is really blessed, as you are to still have her with you.

    Have a good trip home, and take care. Susan *********************** Susan Ansara 4471 Superstition Dr. Las Cruces, NM 88011 ansara@me.com 575-649-8786 ************************

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  2. Susan, you are amazing. So many readers just skim through a post, but you obviously absorb it and comment on many parts of it. It’s so nice to have a friend take a real interest in my posts. Too bad you were in Philly in the winter. I don’t do windows or cold. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Jim! What a treat to hear from you.My (new) husband and I have long been talking about getting back to Mexico. I’m just sorry you were so close to DC and we didn’t have a chance to see you. Do keep in touch about whatever you are up to in Mexico. Fondly, Nancy

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  4. Congratulations on your wedding Nancy. I hope I get to meet your husband. You are welcome in Mexico you know. I didn’t have time to do justice to Philadelphia and had no car, so Washington has to wait for another time. Stay well.

  5. Hi, Jim. Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Enjoyed your excellent documentation of the culture and history in the Philadelphia area. Thanks also for including the excellent dining experience we shared. Joan & John

  6. Thanks Jim for the wonderful photoes and comentary. Carole and I enjoyed almost the same exact trip and loved our time in Philadelphia.
    The Winthur Gardens were a special treat..

  7. Hi Jim,

    I was happy to hear that you are alive and well and also avoiding the crowds. We are going to have Covid with us for a long time, and we must not take any risks. Covid is resurging in Mexico, and I’m super-careful. Also I was happy to hear that your Mother is 104 and looks great—you too will be with us many years more.

    They say that ageing brings flood of memories. Your wonderful story on Philly took me back to my childhood—I grew up in a huge home built by my father in the countryside near Houston in the American colonial style. The biggest room in the house was the library with thousands of books, including the classics. I spent my childhood in that library rather than with my classmates on the baseball diamond. Here in Cuernavaca me and my son who lives five blocks away still share a lot of that library between us. So my granddaughter also grew up in it. She won a scholarship to George Washington University and just graduated with a Phi Beta Kapp in modern dance choreography and also a Phi Beta Kappa in International Relations.

    No, the Liberty Bell in Philly is not all it’s cracked up to be. Ho Ho HO.

    You mention the Du Ponts and farming. Did you know that the original aristocratic Du Pont fled the French Revolution to America where his descendents founded nylon industries. These later Du Ponts made a fortune off it, but when hemp became a rival they went to the U.S. Senate roaring, “Hemp is a source of wicked pot.” The Senate right away prohibited the import of hemp. So you see that pot has its economic benefits. Th pots of orchids at the du Ponts’ Longwood Gardens are the biggest I have ever seen.

    I like the Van Gogh at the Barnes’ collection. I have never seen that one before.

    The Diana sculpture shocked Juana Maria because the huntress is so thin. Our Diana sculpture in Mexico City and also in Cuernavaca looks like she stepped off a pole dance in a bar. It told Juana Maria that the model for the Barnes’ Diana was a gringa.

    I enjoyed taking the tour with you, especially because I will never get to see the city. You paid 23 dollars for a sandwich. In Mexico that is the minimum wage for almost three days of work. So to buy two sandwiches you would have to work a week on Mexican wages. Wages are so low that it takes an archeologist to find them. The populist Mexican president Obrador has just raised my and Juana Maria’s miserable federal teachers’ pensions twice! His political party MORENA just beat the PRI-PAN opposition in a bi-election for governors. We are celebrating that with a luxury dinner, but we can’t afford to travel. Going on 90 as I look back I see that I have tried every form of rebellion—and paid the price for all of it. But I would do it again. Getting blacklisted in America, though, was a higher price than I expected. I’m so happy that you and many other of my academic friends have made enough money to do what you want to.

    Stay well!

    ROSS GANDY

  8. It’s always great to read your comments, Ross. So sorry Covid has kept you out of circulation. We miss seeing you. Stay well. Hugs to you and Juana Maria.

  9. Jim! I truly enjoyed reading about your visit to Philadelphia esp. your little quips and observations; always amusing and/or educational and sometimes both! I loved seeing some of the pics of art that I ‘know’ like Sailor Boy – wow pretty cool to have seen it, I bet. It was a smart idea to secure the driver and I am sure it was great for him to have 2 steady days and you are a generous tipper. The garden pics are wonderful even if all the flowers were not in full bloom ( I love peonies…) and/or that there were no annuals as one would likely expect (I know I would). It does feel a bit ‘hip’ to show your phone with the ticky app, doesn’t it?! Ha ha I am still skittish my phone will fall in the loo ‘that day’ so I often print one too, when that option is there. Not sure I would deal well with reading the art scoops ON the mobile device but in general, much as I love museums, I tend to be good for a few hours only anyway. Appreciate that when you write up these notes, you also share the wiki or other links for additional perusal – which I will use for some extra learning. Super article and so pleased to know your Mama is still doing well up in NY!

  10. Thanks for your kind comments Nancy. I’m sure you are far more “hip” with the cell phone than I am, but new tricks take longer with old dogs. I did like reading the painting descriptions on the phone since I didn’t have to bend over and squint at the wall and compete with others for the space like one usually does. This was my first travel post in over two years and the word press format changed. I haven’t learned how to place the photos more artistically yet. But I like being able to type the title right on the photo rather than on a separate bar. Little by little. Cheers.

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