Tavern’s Troubling Tale of Emptiness

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The Ivy Leaguers have been holding the Colonial-era landmark at 125-7 Spruce St. for more than a decade, and they’ve just let it sit empty, its playful outdoor sign fading in the sun.

This disuse of an important piece of American heritage is all the more evident now that the city’s Once Upon a Nation is running its Tippler’s Tour again.

The tour is a terrific look at the city’s watering holes – from the earliest unnamed rum caves on the Delaware to the more than 100 taverns that operated in the 18th century – and the role they played in sparking the Revolution.

Guided through Old City by a costumed colonial tavern character, visitors get a delicious taste of history at four Old City watering holes. As fun and educational as this two-hour tour is, however, you can’t help but notice that it fails to drop by the city’s oldest standing tavern, the Man Full of Trouble.

But why bother?

Other than that familiar sign hanging outside, there’s nothing there to see, thanks to Penn’s sloth.

The university has owned the building since 1994, when it was donated by its previous owner, former City Councilwoman and Nixon administration official Virginia Knauer. Over the years, the school has mumbled something about using it as a residence for visiting professors and dignitaries.

But other than fixing the roof and bolting the doors, it’s done little more than twiddle its thumbs. Which is irksome in a town that could use an authentic reminder of those old taverns.

Places like the Tun Tavern, where the U.S. Marine Corps was founded; the Blue Anchor, where William Penn ate his first meal in the city; the Crooked Billet, where Benjamin Franklin spent his first night; the Indian Queen, the Penny Pot, the Four Alls, the Bull’s Head – they’re all long gone.

The City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut is the closest we get, but that’s a re-creation built in 1976. The other three stops on the Tippler’s Tour – Bookbinder’s, the Plough and the Stars and the Society Hill Hotel – are comfortable watering holes, but none offer any significant ties to the city’s colonial past.

Built in 1759 near where Little Dock Creek flowed, the Man Full of Trouble was the kind of place that working men – sailors and dockhands – would’ve patronized. Records show it operated as a tavern into the 1880s. After that, it was a restaurant, a hotel and – until Society Hill’s redevelopment in the 1950s – a wholesale chicken market.

Knauer and her husband purchased the property in the 1960s, restored it and turned it over to a volunteer group, which ran it as a museum of everyday 18th-century tavern life. The weekly tours ended when Knauer, aging and uninterested in holding onto the tavern, bequeathed it the University of Pennsylvania.

After 12 years, Penn has no idea what to do with it.

“We’re still researching and exploring the possibilities of what it could be used for,” university spokesman Tony Sorrentino explained. “We’re going to be diligent. If being overly diligent is a crime, then we’re guilty of that.”

In other words, Penn doesn’t have a clue of what to do with this treasure. So, here’s a suggestion:

Donate the property to a qualified nonprofit organization, toss in a little seed money as penance for dragging your feet and get it running again as a functioning historic tavern.

It would be a unique attraction, a tribute to the role it and others played in the foundation of our city and nation. I know Once Upon a Nation would love to make it a key part of its Tippler’s Tour.

And here’s a bonus: Old City preservationist and architect Richard Thom, who’s been griping about the inaction for years, told me he’ll donate his firm’s services to whatever architectural preservation work is needed.

“The Man Full of Trouble ought to be a major tourist attraction but it’s sitting fallow,” Thom said. “This place ought to be fully restored. The university needs to step up and do the right thing.”

As they say in toasts on the Tippler’s Tour, “Huzzah!”

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The Tippler’s Tour leaves from Independence Living Center, 3rd and Chestnut streets, at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays through Oct. 26. The two-hour walking tour includes drinks and a sip of history at four Old City watering holes. $30, $25 senior/military/student, 215-629-4026.

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