Airbnb offers behind-the-scenes tours of historical sites

PHILADELPHIA – The tour was informative, interesting and illuminating.

And then Michael Norris, executive director of the Carpenters Co., brought out the Scotch whiskey and the intimate gathering turned into a discussion about ghosts.

Kara Stephens asked whether the building she had just toured is haunted.

Norris didn’t say yes. But he didn’t say no, either, and he even brought out a couple of photos that might or might not include a specter.

The verdict on the tour?

“This turned out to be dope!” said Jack Fernsby, who was with Stephens.

“It feels special to be here,” agreed Stephens, “like we’re doing something secret.”

Six people joined Norris for an after-hours, behind-the-scenes tour of Carpenters’ Hall, an 18th-century building in Philadelphia that was the site of the First Continental Congress – arranged not through the institution which also was once home to Benjamin Franklin’s Library Co. of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society and the First and Second National Banks of the United States, but through Airbnb, a distinctly 21-century innovation.

A staged look at the room of Betsy Ross inside the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

Another historical Philadelphia site offers the same type of experience, also through Airbnb: The Betsy Ross House, a former boarding house on Arch Street that was home to the most famous woman ever to wield a needle and thread, has its own version of Made By Us, what the travel site describes as “a coalition of history and civic organizations.”

Airbnb takes no commission, either, offering institutions hard-hit by COVID-19 closures, capacity limits and fewer tourists to take full advantage of a much-needed additional revenue stream.

Liz DeBold Fusco, a spokesperson for Airbnb, said the site offers “social impact experiences” with 100% of the proceeds going to nonprofits, museums and cultural institutions to help them recover from a pandemic that’s decimated their respective bottom lines.

“It was really important to help them from our perspective,” she said. “Our community supports small businesses, local museums and institutions all the time,” with hosts and users recommending must-see destinations. “This is a natural extension of what our hosts do all the time.”

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Made By Us launched in October with several museums and institutions across the U.S., with more to come, she added.

The Betsy Ross House has hosted off-hours events for smaller groups, said director Lisa Acker-Moulder: Tipsy Tours, spooky tours, and tours with historical reenactors. Though Carpenters’ Hall tours are after the building closes to the public for the day, the Airbnb tours at the Betsy Ross House are in the morning, before the house opens to the public at 10 a.m.

“After we reopened (when the City of Philadelphia lifted restrictions), there were some tourists but we were still very slow,” Acker-Moulder said. “So we knew we had to do more to appeal to locals.”

They showed movies in the courtyard, projecting films right onto the house’s walls and allowing people to bring beer or wine, and hosted tours with an actor portraying an assistant to famed Colonial-era doctor Benjamin Rush, who discussed yellow fever, cholera and “other yucky stuff.”

Michael Norris leads a tour of Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia.

Everyone on the Carpenters’ Hall tour was a Philadelphia resident, though Norris said most visitors to the Chestnut Street building are from outside the area.

“I thought it would be tourists but it’s been mostly locals so far,” Norris said of the Airbnb experience he started leading in January.

Cate Malnarick and Jim Griffith said they found out about the tour from VisitPhilly.com’s Uwishunu page. Griffith, a city native, and Malnarick, who came to Philadelphia from her native Chicago eight years ago, were just looking for something different to do on a weeknight.

“You hear about the history growing up here.” said Griffith, adding that he’d visited historical sites including Carpenters’ Hall as a child, “but you get something different out of it when you’re an adult.”

Lauren Novasitis, another Philadelphia resident, heard about the experience from a Philadelphia Magazine listing of things to do in the city.

“This is great because it’s not the usual tourist thing, but it’s still great for locals to learn history in a way that most people don’t get to do,” she said.

DuBold Fusco, the Airbnb spokesperson, wasn’t surprised to hear locals took advantage of the experience.

“We have seen during the pandemic people are staying nearby even as they’re looking to get away,” she said. “Since the summer of 2020, we saw trips within 300 to 500 miles become very popular, and this is an extension of that.

“Plus, when we’ve all been cooped up for so long, it’s fun for people to do something different. Even if it’s in their own backyard, it might not be something that would have occurred to them.”

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Though it’s located within the bounds of Independence National Park, Carpenters’ Hall, built in 1770 by a company of master builders (engineers, architects and carpenters) that itself was founded in 1724 and continues to this day, is not affiliated with the National Park Service.

Norris, a self-described “history buff” whose background is in nonprofit administration – not building – explained that Carpenters’ Hall is owned and maintained by the Carpenters’ Co.. It was chosen by the Founding Fathers for the First Continental Congress because it was one of the few public buildings in Philadelphia at the time not affiliated with the government – with which they were in political, if not yet military, conflict – or a church.

The tour he gave included the history of the company and the building: that it was the first place where Patrick Henry first called upon his fellow delegates as Americans, rather than representatives of their respective colonies or as British subjects; that Franklin used its second floor as a lending library, but also as a place to meet in secret with a French diplomat as he tried to convince France to help Americans in their fight against the British; that Alexander Hamilton’s idea for a national bank became a reality there.

Acker-Moulder, who’s been with the Betsy Ross House for 20 years and began her career there as a curator, gives the Airbnb tours (the public tours are self-guided and include audio).

An old 'Betsy Ross Buns' sign on display at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

“Betsy Ross was a Jersey girl,” she said with a smile, born Elizabeth Griscom on a farm in Gloucester City. Her father, a carpenter, moved the family to Philadelphia when she was 3, thinking there would be more work in a fast-growing city than in what was then a rural area. She met her first husband, John Ross, while she was an apprentice upholster – at the time, that meant not only working with furniture but also making curtains, pillows, bedding, wallpaper and other home goods – leaving the Quaker faith in which she’d been raised to marry him.

John Ross joined the militia but died in 1776, and Betsy, a young widow with no children, found her life and finances thrown into chaos. She moved to the house on Arch Street, which dates to 1740 and 1760, and worked in a front room of the building. It was there that Gen. George Washington, Robert Morris and a relative of her late husband approached her about making a flag, according to Ross family lore.

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“To the naysayers” who question Ross’ story, Acker-Moulder noted that, in a renovation of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, records were found that indicate Washington used the Rosses as his upholsters for his home in Philadelphia.

Ross was a rebellious figure, sewing the flag in her upstairs bedroom – “a criminal act, and an act of treason” in a city at times occupied by British forces and with loyalists everywhere, Acker-Moulder pointed out. After her second husband died in a British prison after being captured at sea, and her third husband suffered a disabling stroke, she worked to support her family – by again helping the revolutionaries, making cartridges for Washington’s Continental Army, “another criminal act, another act of treason,” Acker-Moulder said.

Visitors to the Airbnb experience get to go into areas of the house not normally open to the public, and also can get a glimpse of artifacts normally locked away, like Ross’ eyeglasses (by the end of her life, she’d lost most eyesight) and snuffbox with her initials engraved into it (“She hated the stuff,” Acker-Moulder explained, but used it because it was believed at the time that it could cure her vision problems).

Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia.

Airbnb tour visitors can see the Carpenters’ Co.’s second-floor library, with its own collection of artifacts not normally seen by the public: a box made from wood that had been the mantle of Washington’s Philadelphia home; architectural pattern and design books from the 18th century; 19th-century furniture; and a miniature cannon model made by a militia member. The room also contains a collection of books commissioned by Napoleon upon his conquest of Egypt studying its culture, history and anthropology – and, behind an almost comically small door, a 19th-century restroom that looks exactly like one might imagine.

The second floor also includes the Dalkeith Room, honoring the Scottish town where Robert Smith, a company member who designed Carpenters’ Hall, was born.

That’s also where the Scotch was poured carefully over ice (or neat, depending on the visitor’s preference) by Norris, and where he showed a guestbook signed by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip during their 1976 Bicentennial visit, and those photos that may or may not depict a shadowy female figure moving from the library into the hallway.

Norris’ recollections and insights, said Stephens, helped make the tour more fun and interesting.

“I didn’t know what it would be like, but I love anything with old books,” she admitted. “But I also love watching someone who loves what they do, and he clearly does – and that makes me love it too.”

Phaedra Trethan is a reporter and editor concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected] or on Twitter @By_Phaedra.

This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: History tourism: Airbnb offers special tours of Philadelphia sites