William Penn envisaged a beautiful waterfront for his city ― something similar to the embankment in London, but this was not to be. Instead, the area quickly became a scene of great commercial activity, stuffed with bustling wharves, warehouses, and boisterous taverns. The district is the oldest and most historic in the city, for it was from the banks of the Delaware that Philadelphia grew westward toward the Schuylkill River.
Construction was started on Independence Hall in 1732, only fifty years after the founding of the city by William Penn. At the time, the area between 5th and 6th Streets, where the most ambitious building ever planned in the American colonies was being built, was still on the edge of things. Forty years later, when events leading to a declaration of independence by a gathering of rebels made this the birthplace of America, the city had grown as far as 8th Street. The port was thriving but the streets were still unpaved.
There were dwellings in Old City ― Elfreth’s Alley and Loxley Court attest to that ― but they were modest homes in contrast to the larger ones to be seen in Society Hill. By the 1960s Old City had long ago ceased to be the city’s pulsing financial center. Manufacturers had departed as well. Cheaper rents now again attracted artisans and craftspeople. The spacious 19th century buildings offered a perfect locale for contemporary art galleries and stores offering the fine crafts of this new population ― particularly furniture. Today, Old City is home to more than 30 galleries interwoven in the historic district.
This walking tour will start at Philadelphia’s number one tourist attraction - at the south end of Independence Mall where the Liberty Bell stands opposite Independence Hall...
Liberty Bell Center
6th & Market streets
The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. In July, 1776 the tower of Independence Hall was in bad condition and historians are skeptical that the Bell actually rang out the chimes of freedom as tradition holds. However, its association with the Declaration of Independence was fixed in the collective mythology, due to fictional accounts made popular in the wake of the American Revolution. Abolitionists in the 1830s were the first to claim the bell as a symbol of freedom and after the divisive Civil War it became a reminder of unity and it was sent on a trip across the country. Back in Philadelphia, now a national icon, the Liberty Bell has had several homes, this is the latest.
Pennsylvania State House/Indpendence Hall
Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th streets
Construction of the Pennsylvania State House, which came to be known as Independence Hall, began in 1732. At the time it was the most ambitious public building in the thirteen colonies and since the Provincial government paid for construction as they went along, it took 21 years to complete. The building has undergone many restorations, notably by Greek Revival architect John Haviland in 1830, and served a number of purposes. The second floor was once home to Charles Willson Peale’s museum of natural history and the basement was once the city’s dog pound. In 1950 the National Park Service returned it to its 1776 appearance finalizing its status as the birthplace of the United States. It was within its walls that the Declaration of Independence was adopted. It was here that the Constitution of the United States was debated, drafted and signed. That document is the oldest federal constitution in existence and was framed by a convention of delegates from 12 of the original 13 colonies (Rhode Island did not send a delegate).
southeast corner of Chestnut and 6th streets
Independence Hallis flanked on on its left by Congress Hall, occupied from 1790-1800 by the new United States Congress. The House of Representatives convened on the first floor and the upper floor was occupied appropriately, by the upper house, or the Senate. In 1793, President George Washington was inaugurated here for a second term. Four years later, in a scene unlike any the world had ever seen, George Washington ended his presidency and voluntarily passed the reins of power to his successor, John Adams. At the close of the ceremony, Adams waited for Washington to lead the exit, as everyone had grown accustomed to, but Washington insisted on leaving the room after the new President. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the Bill of Rights was ratified while Congress met in these rooms.
Public Ledger Building
southwest corner of 6th and Chestnut streets
The Public Ledger was Philadelphia’s most widely read daily paper as soon as it hit the streets in 1836 as the city’s first “penny paper.” After the Civil War the paper settled on this corner and in 1913 it was purchased by Cyrus H.K. Curtis who ran a magazine empire next door. He commissioned Horace Trumbauer to do this Georgian Revival office building in 1924. The Ledger had only a decade to live at the time, in 1934 it merged into the Philadelphia Inquirer.
TURN AROUND AND WALK UP INDEPENDENCE MALL, AWAY FROM INDEPENDENCE HALL.
Rohm and Haas Corporate Headquarters
100 Independence Mall West
The chemical company was the first private investor to build on Independence Mall, moving here in 1964 from Washington Square. The nine-story building with translucent, corrugated sunscreens (made of Rohm and Haas’s principal product, Plexiglass) became a standard for redevelopment around the historic area. The headquarters was designed by Pietr Belluschi, with more than 1,000 building designs to his credit, and is considered one of his best renditions of the International style.
11 S 5th Street, east side of Independence Mall
Designed by brothers G.W. and W.D Hewitt in 1893, the Philadelphia Bourse was the first building in the world to house simultaneously a stock exchange, maritime exchange, and grain-trading center. Under the guidance of Philadelphia businessman George Bartol, the exchange thrived but the building was cast adrift when the business center of the city moved away from the river in the mid-20th century. Unlike many of its Victorian-age cousins the Bourse did not meet a grisly end in front of a wrecking ball but was renovated in 1982 into a combination shopping mall and office complex.
Christ Church Burial Ground
southeast corner of 5th Street and Arch Street
In 1719 the burial ground next to Christ Church was becoming full, and the neighboring lands proved too marshy to be useful for burials. So land was purchased on the outskirts of the city (three blocks away at the time.) The earliest tombstone dates to 1720. Eventually five signers of the Declaration of Independence were buried here. Hundreds of Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary notables are interred in Christ Church Burial Ground but the most famous is Benjamin Franklin who is buried here with his wife Deborah. The grave can be seen through the fence on Arch Street if the burying ground is closed.
National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street
The first-ever national museum honoring and explaining the United States Constitution tells the story of the document that framed the great American experiment. The museum includes interactive exhibits and a theater with a live-actor-and-light show engagingly framing the importance of the Constitution to us as a nation and to the world. The center opened in 2003.
The United States Mint
5th and Arch streets
The United States’ first mint ― indeed the first structure sanctioned by the United States government ― was erected in 1792, just two blocks from the present site. George and Martha Washington donated the silver for the first coins. As a new capital city was being built along the banks of the Potomac, it was expected that the Mint would move there. Yet in 1800, when Washington, D.C. was ready, the government did not have the money to replace what was already an efficient operation. An Act of Congress in 1828 ensured that the Mint would remain permanently in Philadelphia. This block-swallowing structure is the fourth Philadelphia money-making facility, completed in 1969. It is the largest mint in the world, capable of producing 30 million coins a day.
CONTINUE UP 5TH STREET PAST INDEPENDENCE MALL. TURN RIGHT ON NEW STREET.
St. Augustine Church
northwest corner of 4th and New streets
On the night of May 8, 1844 anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant rioters attacked and burned St. Augustine, at the time the largest church in the city. By dawn only a single wall of the church, whose cornerstone had been laid in 1796, was left standing. Amid the rubble, the historic Sister Bell, symbolic of Penn’s dream of religious and personal freedom, lay burned and smashed, destroyed by the fire. Church records were spared however, by a quick-thinking pastor who hid them in a furnace to protect them. In the aftermath of the riot the friars sued the City of Philadelphia for not providing adequate protection and were awarded $45,000. Due to the burning of the church and other violence a state law requiring police forces was enacted in 1845. The violence also led to the consolidation of the city and county in 1854. The architect chosen to rebuild was Napoleon LeBrun who also designed the Philadelphia Academy of Music. LeBrun gave the church a Palladian style. Inside are stunning ceiling frescoes by Filippo Costaggini who painted part of the frieze on the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington D.C. The new church saw disaster of it own in 1992 when its steeple blew off during a brutal winter storm and fell onto the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The bridge was closed for three days and a fifty-foot hole opened in the church’s ceiling but no one was hurt.
St. George’s United Methodist Church
235 N 4th Street
Methodists scattered across Philadelphia met in private homes until this church, built in 1763 andbelonging to a German Reformed Congregation, was purchased in 1769. Now known as “The Cradle of American Methodism,” it is the world’s oldest Methodist church in continuous use and the seat of the first three conferences of American methodism. British forces occupying Philadelphia in 1777 noticed the church still had a dirt floor and a door that opened conveniently onto the street and set up a cavalry school inside. Engineers planning the Benjamin Franklin Bridge were ordered by the court to move the bridge 14 feet. The sidewalk was lowered in the process and that is why St. George’s is entered via steps at its second level.
TURN RIGHT ON 4TH STREET.
Benjamin Franklin Bridge
Delaware River at Vine Street
For almost 250 years the only way to reach New Jersey from Philadelphia was by ferry. It took the world’s longest suspension bridge in 1926 to change all that (a title it held for only three years). Paul Phillippe Cret created one of the country’s most beautiful bridges, far surpassing the quality of its original name - the Delaware River Port Authority Bridge. In 1956, befitting the grandeur and wonder of the span, it was renamed for Ben Franklin. As for cold hard facts, the length of the main span is 1,750 feet, the full length of the bridge is just short of two miles, the towers are 380 feet high and the drop to the water is 135 feet.
TURN LEFT ON ARCH STREET.
Arch Street Friends Meetinghouse
330 Arch Street
The religious Society of Friends was founded in 1600s England by George Fox. Originally the sect was derided for “quaking” before God but the insult was good-naturedly adopted by the Friends. Quakers have no written creed or fixed tenets of belief and no defined program of prayer. Congregants enter a typically unadorned meeting room and sit in silence, perhaps speaking aloud if the spirit moves them. Persecuted in England, the Quakers, under William Penn, created their own colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. Penn donated the land here to be used as a burial ground in 1701. The long, center-pedimented brick building was begun in 1803 with the wings added in 1811. The Arch Street Meeting House is the oldest still in use in Philadelphia and the largest in the world.
St. Charles Hotel
60 N 3rd Street, southwest corner of Arch Street
The old hostelry with its bar on the ground floor and guest rooms above was typical of the accommodations travelers to America’s largest city in the early 1800s could expect to find. It sports one of the city’s earliest cast-iron facades, dating to 1851.
Betsy Ross House
239 Arch Street
Betsy Ross did not design the American flag; probably never sewed one in fact. She may never have even lived in this house, let alone be buried here. But the legend has helped make this modest dwelling one of the best preserved example of a working class abode in Colonial America. Today it is the third most visited historic site in Philadelphia.
TURN RIGHT ON 2ND STREET.
National Products Building
109 N 2nd Street
Harry Caplan opened National Products, a supplier of kitchen equipment to the restaurant trade, in 1929. Caplan acquired adjacent parcels to create what is now known as the National Products property. The orange tiled Art Deco facade was added in 1957. National Products stopped operating out of this facility in 1996. It sat empty and was in danger of demolition but a compromise was brokered to allow the facade to remain during its conversion into condominiums.
TURN AROUND AND CROSS ARCH STREET AND MAKE A RIGHT ON ELFRETH’S ALLEY.
between Front and 2nd streets, north of Arch Street
The cozy confines of Elfreth’s Alley are often referred to as the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. It was opened shortly before 1702 by Arthur Wells, a blacksmith, and John Gilbert, a bolter, when the Delaware River flowed next to the alley. Shortly thereafter it took on the name of Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith and land speculator, who built and rented out many of the alley’s homes. Often the homes were rented to fellow artisans. The oldest houses are thought to be #122 and #124, which were built between 1725 and 1727. The early 18th century houses stand two-and-a-half stories and later Federal-era townhouses are a bit more lavish with a full third story and often boasting a porch. Try not to miss walking the cobblestones into Bladen’s Court located midway down the street, which is basically an alley within an alley that leads into a charming circular courtyard. Mirrors called busybodies project from the second floor windows of many of the houses. These allowed those on second floors the ability to see who was knocking on their front doors.
TURN RIGHT ON FRONT STREET.
100-111 Arch Street, northwest corner of Front Street
The warehouse district on Philadelphia’s waterfront was peppered with commercial buildings gussied up with cast iron facades in the Victorian era of the mid-19th century. The finest of these facades belonged to the four-story Smythe Stores, an Italianate style built between 1855 and 1857. Look closely at the building and you will notice that the central section has been reproduced in fiberglass when the building was converted to apartments in the 1980s.
18-30 Front Street
The rugged commercial buildings along Front Street were built to accommodate Philadelphia’s busy waterfront when the Delaware River lapped up on its doorstep. The Girard Warehouses, faced in granite on the first floor storefronts with upper floors in brick, date to 1810. At 46 North Front Street, at the northwest corner of Cuthbert Street, is a circa 1785 home-store built for John Clifford. It became a store and warehouse from 1821.
TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET.
2nd Street, northwest corner of Church Street
Organized in 1695 this meetinghouse was constructed between 1727 and 1744 by Dr. John Kearsley in the style of the admired English churches done by Sir Christopher Wren. Palladian elements such as double rows of arched windows and balustraded parapets have led architectural historians to praise Christ Church as “the most advanced and completely English church in Colonial America.” The church’s 196-foot high steeple was the most identifiable city landmark for ships sailing up the Delaware River for decades after it was added in 1754 by Scotsman Robert Smith. Benjamin Franklin organized three lotteries to finance the payment of that steeple and bells. Inside is the “600-year-old font” in which William Penn was baptized; sent to the colonies by All Hallow’s Church, Barking by-the-Tower, England. The Second Continental Congress worshipped here as a body in 1775-76 and Christ Church became the most famous church in America. Pew 70 was Ben Franklin’s; George Washington sat in Pew 56. The box pews were all rented, the balconies were rented with a few free pews there for servants and slaves of parishioners. There is ecclesiastical history as well - in 1789 the First Convention of the American Episcopal Church was held here.
TURN LEFT ON 2ND STREET. TURN RIGHT ON MARKET STREET.
316-322 Market Street
Benjamin Franklin moved from Boston to Philadelphia at the age of 17. He was a printer, diplomat, inventor, publisher, author, statesman, Postmaster, and more. He founded the Library Company, Pennsylvania Hospital, American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania.Franklin’s house and print shop were in the courtyard in the interior of this block but were razed in 1812. What is known of the house is that it was three stories high and included 10 rooms. The house was razed in 1812. Because no historical records of the look of the exterior exist, the space once occupied by the house is marked by an oversized “Ghost Structure” designed by world-famous architect Robert Venturi. You can look through portals to see into Franklin’s privy pits, wells, and foundation. At 316 Market Street is the only active post office in the United States that does not fly a United States flag (because there wasn’t yet one in 1775 when it was started). The postmark “B. Free Franklin” is still used to cancel stamps. James Wilson, an editor of The Aurora, lived at 322 Market Street. His grandson, Woodrow, became the 28th President of the United States.
RETURN TO 3RD STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
37-39 S 3rd Street
Stephen Decatur Button designed this commercial building in 1855. Button was a busy architect in Philadelphia and New Jersey, especially in Camden and the early beach resort at Cape May. He was an early experimenter with metal-frame construction and his use here of continuous vertical piers are said to have influenced a young Louis Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscraper, when he lived in Philadelphia while working for Furness & Hewitt in 1873.
TURN LEFT ON CHESTNUT STREET.
Elliott and Leland Buildings
235-237 Chestnut Street
These handsome commercial buildings were designed by Joseph C. Hoxie in the Italianate style, executed in granite. They date to 1853-54. Hoxie was a Rhode Island native but came to Philadelphia to work his brother-in-law, Stephen Decatur Button, in 1848.
100 S 2nd Street, southwest corner of Chestnut Street
Architects Verus T. Ritter and Howell L. Shay came together in 1920 and flourished until the Great Depression withered forthcoming commissions. This government building from 1932-34 was their final major work, an Art Deco skyscraper for the U.S. Customs Service, the first federal agency established by Congress back in 1789. Despite working in a modern style the designers melded the lower stories with its historic eighteenth-century neighborhood through the use of classical details on the broad, low base.
TURN RIGHT ON 2ND STREET.
northwest corner of 2nd and Walnut streets
City Tavern, also called the Merchants’ Coffee House, was the political, social, and business hub of the new United States. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Paul Revere all were regulars at the tables here. When the British occupied Philadelphia, they and their Tory sympathizers partied here. In 1789, George Washington celebrated here with 250 Philadelphia well-wishers prior to his inaugural in New York City. The Tavern burned down in 1854; this building is a 1975 reconstruction.
TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET.
143 S 3rd Street, northeast corner of Walnut Street
After Dock Creek was filled in, Philadelphia suddenly had a curved street intruding on William Penn’s carefully laid out street grid of 90-degree angles. When the city decided in 1832 to rescue traders from the cramped and noisy meetings in coffeehouses and taverns by building a grand “temple of commerce” architect William Strickland solved the conundrum of the odd-shaped lot with a semi-circular Corinthian portico. The Philadelphia Stock Exchange followed most city businesses to Broad Street after the Civil War and the much-admired building began a steady decline. In 1922 it was sold to a firm that made it a Produce Exchange. An open-air market surrounded the Exchange. Vendors hawked vegetables from pushcarts. A gas station was built on the Dock Street side. Finally in 1952 the building was incorporated into Independence Park and today is the oldest standing stock-exchange building in America.
TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET.
First Bank of the United States
120 S 3rd Street
This banking temple, considered the oldest structure in America with a classical facade, was erected in 1797 to be the most imposing building in the country - at a staggering cost of $110,168.05. Samuel Blodget used marble to create one of the best works of public architecture of the 18th century with his Corinthian portico. The bank was championed by Alexander Hamilton and chartered in 1791 to mitigate the colossal war debt from the Revolutionary War. The central bank’s charter was only in effect for 20 years; Congress voted to abandon the bank in 1811. Stephen Girard, one of the first financial moguls, purchased the building and operated it as a private bank for a time. America’s first national bank building was restored for the Bicentennial in 1976.
TURN LEFT ON CHESTNUT STREET.
320 Chestnut Street
The Carpenters’ Company was founded in 1724 and is the oldest trade guild in the country. This building was brand new in 1774 when it was let to the First Continental Congress who were planning a rebellion against England. Later it also served as the headquarters of the First Bank of the United States. Designed by master builder Robert Smith, a Company member, it boasts three Palladian windows across the second floor. The belt course (band separating the floors) is composed in wood instead of the conventional brick.
Second Bank of the United States
420 Chestnut Street
Just as war debt spawned the First Bank of the United States after the Revolution, so too did it cause the creation of the Second Bank of the United States. To help a cash-strapped nation after the War of 1812, Congress authorized and President James Madison signed a bill chartering the bank for 20 years. William Strickland, a 27-year old painter and America’s leading cheerleader for the Greek Revival style, won a design competition to create the new bank in 1815. Today the building houses an extraordinary portrait gallery including, among other treasures, George Washington’s death mask.
Bank of Pennsylvania
421 Chestnut Street
Bank Row emerged across the street from the Second Bank of the United States. The ornate Italian Renaissance Bank of Pennsylvania building was designed in 1859 by John M. Gries. The bank, however, didn’t survive long enough to move into its new building, the Philadelphia Bank put on the finishing touches and took the first deposits here.
Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank
427 Chestnut Street
In its systematic cleansing of all obsolete buildings erected after 1840 by Philadelphia’s urban renewal plan, this sparkling Italianate marble bank from 1854 was somehow spared and lovingly restored in the 1980s. It was also designed by John M. Gries with corner quoins, heavy modillions and relief panels. The two financial palaces are his legacy - Gries died with the Union Army in the Civil War when he was only 35 years old.
CONTINUE WALKING ONE BLOCK ON CHESTNUT STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE LIBERTY BELL.