The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

weirdest national park attraction

My nominee: the underground of the Franklin Court buildings in Philadelphia. Franklin Court is part of the larger, dispersed Independence Park in the old part of Philly. Independence Park has the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and several other pieces to it (including one of those "living history" museums where people dress in period clothes and do period things--I love them, but my wife hates them).

Franklin Court consists of several buildings built by Franklin that housed a print shop/newspaper offices and residences. The print shop is quite cool; the rangers man the handpress and show tourists how newspapers, broadsides, and even books were printed back in the 18th century. (A bindery is in the adjoining room.) But things get just plain weird in the building just south of the newspaper office. One enters a remodeled-in-the-1970s doorway and descends a series of ramps deep underground. At each level, there's an attraction: one landing offers a display of period furniture from Franklin's time and of several items he actually owned. Descending again, visitors end up in a kind of underground control room that looks like nothing so much as a Disney's vision of the future, a kind of Surround-o-rama. On the floor is a matrix of Trimline telephones on slender posts. You quickly notice that of the approximately 40 telephone stands, about half lack phones. Picking up the phones, you realize that of the 20 existent phones, only about half of those offer a dial tone.

Accepting that 25% efficiency is probably acceptable in a federal institution, you pick up the phone and get a dial tone. Nice. Then you notice that on the wall in front of you is a list of historic notables--from John Adams to Immanuel Kant to Andrew Carnegie--and corresponding phone numbers. You seem to be in a kind of off-the-standard-grid telephone exchange, because while many of the numbers make sense (Carnegie and Mellon are reached through Pittsburgh's 412 area code and Adams through Boston's 617), others, such as Kant, have only a five-digit number. British personages you must reach by dialing their country code, though.

Picking up a working phone and dialing the number, you hear the hard "brrrrring" that used to characterize American phones but will be familiar to those who've used European phones. After a few rings, you hear the distinctly familiar (to those of us older than 30) sound of a phone being picked up off a hook, and a recording of the personage you called begins.

It's very weird. Why Trimline phones? Why the accurate area codes? Why not upgrade the place now that everyone walking in carries a cell--the rest of Independence Park offers numbers you can call for a recording describing the attraction. I found this subterranean Franklin-land indescribably charming, and it reminded me of the even then dusty vision of the future that Disneyland in Anaheim showcased when I first visited it, in 1976.