Marking Pennsylvania History

Echoes from the Sidewalk

What exactly is that ornate, cream-colored facade looming over Locust Street? Walking west, from Washington Square, one could simply pass by the old Musical Fund Hall without a thought. And that would be an option, but it would be a mistake.

In the 1820s, when the Musical Fund Hall was new, it was the center of cultural life in Philadelphia. Broad Street was still mostly barren. The Academy of Music would not be built for three more decades. Nearby, the Walnut Street Theater was thriving and the Square served as one of the gathering grounds for the city's 150,000 residents. But that population would double again before 1850 and double again by 1870, forcing the city westward and leaving the Musical Fund Hall as a pleasant, if quaint, memory.

Stand on the sidewalk and imagine opening night: December 29, 1824. Handel's Dettingen Te Deum was performed. Imagine the following year, when the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero from the Revolutionary War was regaled here. Like so many sites in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, this one is full of connections and surprises. Charles Dickens lectured here in 1842. Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale" lit up the Hall with her voice. Imagine the echoes.

And as you stand on the brick pavement of Locust Street in the 21st century, imagine June 1856, when the first Republican National Convention convened at the Musical Fund Hall. "Our town is again alive with the bustle and excitement of a grand convention," reported the Philadelphia Bulletin. "The hotels are crowded to the highest flight," and the nation's eyes were turned to Philadelphia, and this historical hall.

Today condominiums occupy the space that once held these people, these events. Like I said, it takes imagination to hear the echoes.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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