Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak
While I sat sipping my coffee, a remedial google search showed that I was only about a mile away from the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. That got me all excited, and I grabbed my coffee (conveniently, already in a to-go cup – the people at Starbucks are considerate like that) and booked it out the door. I walked from downtown out to what used to be Edgar Allan Poe’s house, which he shared with his very own Annabelle Lee.
Now, I’m sure most of us remember Eddie from our high school English lessons, learning to recite “Annabelle Lee” by heart or – my personal favorite – watching horrible 1930s movie adaptations of his short stories. But let’s do a quick refresher course:
Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809. His mother died shortly after his father abandoned the two of them, when Poe was less than two years old. He was then taken in by Joe and Frances Allan, some acquaintances of the family, and they raised him. It’s from them that he took the name ‘Allan.’ While under the Allans’ care, Poe received the best education money could buy, but got a little out of hand when he went off to college. In fact, his bad behavior in college (namely gambling) caused a rift with his foster family that never really healed.
Unable to support himself, he entered the military, of which he made a spectacularly lackluster career. In 1830, he had his foster father buy out his commission so that he could enroll at West Point and come out with a higher rank, but by 1831 he was so sick of the military that he acted out on purpose to get himself court martialed. As such, he got himself kicked out of the military for good.
During all this time, Poe had been writing poetry, and had even gotten some of it published. He decided to try and make a living by his pen after his 1831 departure from West Point, and started working for various newspapers. He bounced around from place to play following the work, but by 1840 he was in Philadelphia with plans on issuing a new literary magazine.
Poe and his family – his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm – lived in several houses in Philadelphia, but this is the only one still standing. They moved into the property in 1843, and lived there for about a year. While he only lived here for a short time, scholars think that this is where he really got into the stride of writing and became the master that he’s considered today.
One of his most famous stories, “The Black Cat,” was probably written in this house. In fact, the house may have inspired it – the basement described in the story is incredibly similar to the actual basement of this house. Coincidence? Probably not. Poe, like most of us, was probably a bit weirded out by his dank, poorly-lit cellar. There’s also a rumor floating around that Poe started working on “The Raven” while at this house, but that’s a bit harder to nail down.
The Edgar Allan Poe house is now a designated National Historic Site, and is in the hands of the fine people at the National Park Service. And I must say, they’ve done a superb job making sure you get the full Poe-esque feel of the place.
In order to enter the house, you must use the massive knocker on the front door. A ranger will then open the door and permit you to enter. Right away (and despite the bright winter sunlight streaming down) I got a delightfully eerie feeling as I waited to gain entry.
Immediately inside the door is a display with a timeline of Poe’s life, followed by a display of the development and importance of his literary work. There’s also a short video about the property, which the rangers are more than happy to start for any visitor that wishes to see it.
What made me happiest about visiting this site was how much fun the rangers were having with the house. As one ranger was giving me an orientation to the space, she asked that I not pound or tap of the walls looking for dead bodies, as the plaster is mostly original and therefore pretty fragile. Being the smartmouth that I am, I joked, “What, no beating hearts under the stairs?”
“Well…” the ranger said, a tad sheepishly.
As it turns out, a few years ago, they’d had a carpenter come in to inspect the floorboards and support beams, just to make sure the place was sound for visitors. While he had one of the floorboards up, some cheeky parks worker slipped a rubber heart into the cavity. To this day, if you look very carefully on the third floor, you can find the tell-tale heart. Not to be upstaged, the rangers working in the basement hid a black cat’s tail in a hole in the wall in the basement. *
So, if, in your travels seeking Fairy-Land, Eldorado, or even just the City by the Sea, stop for a bit in Philly and entreat entrance at the chamber door.
*No cats were harmed in the making of this joke. Remember, we’re dealing with National Park Rangers. They like animals.
Visiting the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site:
Getting there: The address is 532 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia PA, 19123. There is on-street parking near the site. You can also take the SEPTA bus, line 47, and get off the bus at Green Street. The site is about 1 mile from the City Hall area, so it’s easy to walk there, just keep your head about you! I opted to walk, and I noticed that the neighborhoods went from nice to not-so-nice fairly quickly. Like in any big city, keep your flashy phone in safely in your pocket and know which way you’re going.
Admission: Admission is free, making this a great literary day out in Philly!
Opening Hours: The site is only open on weekends, Friday through Sunday, from 9-12 and 1-5 (they close for an hour at lunch time).
Website: You can visit the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site website here.
Good to know:
- This is a 19th-century house, and, as such, it’s not very wheelchair accessible. If you have issues with climbing stairs, be advised that you might not be able to visit parts of the house.
- Make a roadtrip of it! Be sure to check out the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York City while you’re on the East Coast.