The Free Society of Traders, a stock company that invested in William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony, set up shop on Dock Creek (later filled in and called Dock Street) in 1682 to oversee their new assets which soon included a sawmill, a glasshouse and a tannery in the the new settlement of Philadelphia. The Society barely saw the 1700s before it went bankrupt and disappeared. It is this long-gone stock company for which Society Hill is named. Hard by the river and the new government, it was the most valuable land in the city. Speculators hungry to cash in chopped up their building lots into ever smaller parcels, leaving smallish alleys that epitomize Colonial America.

By the mid 1900s Society Hill had lost its cachet and spiraled into a disheveled slum area. Meanwhile the City was adopting an urban renewal plan that called for every building constructed after 1840 to be swept away from the streets andeverything built earlier would be saved and rehabilitated. About 600 Georgian and Federal buildings were renovated but countless Victorian buildings that gave the neighborhood spice were lost forever. And any new buildings would come on line with the same Colonial brick appearance.  

Society Hill is loosely defined as the land between the Delaware River and Washington Square, bounded by Walnut Street to the North and Lombard Street to the South. Our walking tour of Society Hill will begin on the waterfront in Penn’s Landing which has been severed from Society Hill by I-95 but where parking is plentiful...

Penn’s Landing
at Delaware River

William Penn first sailed up the Delaware River in the fall of 1682 aboard the ship Welcome, an aptly named vessel, for in Penn’s progressive vision of his colony, all religions would be welcome to pray as they pleased. He made land near a tidewater basin called the Dock fed by a creek of the same name. Nineteenth-century historian John Fanning Watson, author of the Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, believed that the landing of Penn in Philadelphia rivaled the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in importance and should have been similarly canonized. After Penn’s arrival, this area quickly became the center of Philly’s maritime soul and the city’s dominant commercial district. The area today known as Penn’s Landing stretches along the Delaware River for about 10 blocks from Vine Street to South Street. Starting in 1967, the city began to redevelop the area’s dilapidated docks into a recreation park along the river. Walkways were put in, an amphitheater was built, a World Sculpture Garden installed ― and finally, trees were planted along the river.


A Man Full of Trouble Tavern
125-127 Spruce Street

A Man Full of Trouble Tavern, built around 1760 on the banks of Little Dock Creek, is the only watering hole from pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia that stands today. It looks like any residence in Society Hill - commercial properties were indistinguishable from residences - save for a hand-painted sign out front - in Colonial America. Pipe smokers dropped a penny in an “honesty box” - so named because it was assumed the pipe smoker would extract only one pipeful of tobacco from the bowl. 

Society Hill Towers
2nd and Locust streets

This is the project that kicked off the renovation of Society Hill after it had become a widespread slum by the middle of the 20th century. After winning a design competition Ieoh Ming Pei created three modern International-style towers built with poured-in-place concrete. 

Abercrombie House
270 South 2nd Street

This house was one of the finest and tallest structures in Philadelphia when it was built in 1758 for Scottish sea captain James Abercrombie. The townhouse was rehabilitated by Leon Perelman, a Philadelphia native and president of American Paper Products, in 1968 to start the Antique Toy Museum. Perelman’s private collection included more than 1,000 early American tin and cast-iron toys and the world’s largest collection of mechanical toy banks.


Powel House
244 South 3rd Street

Samuel Powel was the last colonial mayor of Philadelphia before the Revolution. He was the first mayor after the Revolution. His grandfather, also Samuel Powell, came to the New World in 1685 and through an advantageous marriage and an extraordinary gift for carpentry and bridge-building, became the wealthy owner of dozens of Philadelphia homes houses. Young Samuel dropped the second “l” in his surname to become Powel. He also declined to move into one of the 90 houses he now owned and instead purchased this house on 3rd Street from Charles Stedman. Stedman was the part-owner of a forge and a substantial landowner, who eventually fell upon hard times and wound up in debtors’ prison in 1774. The Powels became known as as the go-to hosts for party-goers in the capital town. George and Martha Washington became good friends and when Benjamin Franklin died Samuel served as one of the pallbearers. Samuel Powel, “the Patriotic Mayor,” died in the Yellow Fever epidemic that swept the city in 1793. The house was almost demolished for an open-air museum in 1931 but survives today as a museum. 


St. Joseph’s Church
321 Willings Alley

On the north wall is a commemorative plaque that pays tribute to William Penn, who in his Charter of 1701 granted religious toleration and understanding in his colony. the plaque reads:

When in 1733 / St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church / was founded and / Dedicated to the Guardian of the Holy Family / it was the only place / in the entire English speaking world / where public celebration of / the Holy sacrifice of the Mass / was permitted by law. The first church was built on this site in 1733, enlarged in 1821 and rebuilt in 1838. During a period of church-burning in the Anti-Catholic Riots of 1844 that spread across the city, this church emerged unharmed. Today it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia.


Philadelphia Contributorship
212 South 4th Street

In 1730, the most disastrous fire to rage in Philadelphia’s history burst from the timbers of Fishbourn’s wharf on the Delaware River. Before the conflagration flamed out all the businesses on the wharf burned. In the aftermath Benjamin Franklin agitated for the formation of Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire brigade, the Union Fire Company. So many men wanted to join up that Franklin encouraged the formation of brigades across the city. In 1751, Franklin and leaders from other brigades formed the oldest fire insurance company in the United States. Afterwards rival fire companies would literally battle int he streets at the scene of a blaze to determine who would extinguish the fire and receive payment from the Contributorship. Philadelphia would not get a city fire department until 1871 but, through luck and its aggressive firefighting-for-pay system, never suffered a citywide catastrophic conflagration. The Contributorships’ Greek Revival building that dates to 1836 caught fire itself ― it was quickly extinguished. 


Pennsylvania Savings Fund Society   
306 Walnut Street

Founded in 1816, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society was the first savings bank in the United States. This is their ancestral headquarters, designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who would later redesign the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., in the Greek Revival style in 1839. Marble quarried in Chester County was used in construction; the pediment is an 1880s addition.


Curtis Center
northwest corner of 6th Street and Walnut Street

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis founded what was to become the largest magazine publishing company in the country, largely on the strength of the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal, in 1883. He came to Philadelphia rather than New York because he liked the town better. And, oh by the way, printing costs were cheaper. This block-swallowing Beaux Arts office building came from the pen of Edgar V. Seeler in 1910. 

Washington Square
bounded by Walnut Street on the north, 6th Street on the east, South Washington Square on the south and West Washington Square on the west

Washington Square was one of five squares - called Southeast Square at the time - designated by William Penn in 1682. For most of the next 100 years this was a potter’s field and among the bodies buried beneath the square are fallen Revolutionary War soldiers. Burials were generally done on the cheap: bodies bound in canvas ― sans coffins. It was in the air over Washington Square that Americans first witnessed flight. Aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard made the first balloon ascension in America from the Walnut Street Jail in 1793. It picked up the name of America’s first president, who served his two terms in Philadelphia, in 1825 but the statue, a bronze cast of the 1791 marble original by Jean-Antoine Houdon, dates to the 1920s. 


Penn Mutual Insurance Company
510 Walnut Street ; east side of Washington Square

At the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets, on the Square’s eastern side, is an office building belonging to the Penn Mutual Insurance Company. In 1913, Edgar Seeler, architect of the Curtis Center, also designed this structure. The adjacent skyscraper is another Penn Mutual building; the facade of John Haviland’s 1838 Egyptian Revival design for the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Co. was retained intact and serves as a faux facade for the skyscraper. Penn Mutual was built on the site of Robert Smith’s historic Walnut Street Jail which stood here from 1775 to 1835. This prison was the site of the earliest experiments in criminal rehabilitation in the United States; new prison practices included segregation of the sexes, separation of juveniles from adults, and the creation of distinct prisons for debtors and felons. George Washington spent a good amount of time in the debtor’s prison ― visiting his good friend Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution. Morris had fallen on hard times, in part due to his attempt at building a personal palace on High (Market) Street which bankrupted him.

Athenaeum of Philadelphia
219 South 6th Street; east side of Washington Square

In 1845 architect John Notham created the first Italianate building in America for this private library that began in 1818. The reading room, the city’s finest, saw the likes of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe. Notham had wanted marble for his Italian palazzo but settled for the cheaper brownstone. The Italianate style, with elongated windows, window hoods and brackets, would dominate American streets in the middle of the 19th century.

Lea & Febiger  
600 South Washington Square; east side of Washington Square

America’s oldest continuously operating book publisher, Lea & Febiger, spent about a third of its 225 years in this building it built in 1923. Mathew Carey started the company in 1785, thanks in part to a $400 loan from the Marquis de Lafayette.


Farm Journal Building
230 West Washington Square; west side of Washington Square

The Farm Journal’s first readers in 1827 were “farmers living within a day’s buggy ride” of Philadelphia. Today it is the largest farming magazine in the country. The Farm Journal Building, with its stone-carved horn of plenty overflowing at the entrance, was built in 1911. 

W.B. Saunders Building
northwest corner of 7th and Locust streets; west side of Washington Square

Washington Square was the center of Philadelphia’s robust publishing industry that began flourishing in the 19th century. The W.B. Saunders Company dates to 1888 and moved here in 1910. Though long a leader in the field of medical publishing, specializing in technical works, it is best known for the landmark Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, more popularly known as “the Kinsey Report” that was the first graphic study of human sexual behavior. 

N.W. Ayer Building
210 West Washington Square; west side of Washington Square

Francis Wayland Ayer was 21 years old when he started a business in 1869 to represent religious weekly magazines. Ayer was the first agency to hire a full-time copywriter (1892) and the first to hire an artist (1898). Over the next hundred years it grew to be Philadelphia’s largest advertising agency and the country’s oldest before defecting to New York City in 1973. Its Art Deco tower, with bronze doors etched with busy advertising employees, was built in 1928 by Ralph Bencker. 

Bible House
701 Walnut Street; north side of Washington Square

This is home to the Pennsylvania Bible Society, the oldest such group in the country. The Society, formed in 1808, has distributed bibles in 73 different languages.


Philadelphia Savings Fund Society  
700-710 Walnut Street; west side of Washington Square

This marble Italianate palazzo was the second of three headquarters for the venerable Philadelphia banking house that opened its doors down Walnut Street in 1816 as a benevolent institution without stockholders. The building has seen a couple of additions but the original slice was built in 1869 at the corner opposite Washington Square. Addison Hutton won a design competition for the commission that kickstarted one of Philadelphia’s most successful architectural careers of the 19th century. 


Reynolds-Morris House
225 South 8th Street

This Georgian-style house was built by physician John Reynolds in 1787. Later purchased by Luke Wistar Morris in 1817, it is one of two free-standing houses remaining in Philadelphia from the immediate post-Revolution period.

Pennsylvania Hospital
8th Street between Spruce and Pine streets

This is the oldest hospital in America, founded to take care of the “sick poor” and the insane. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond raised money to found the hospital in 1751, the first patient was admitted a year later. The hospital’s original home was the Pine Building, still a section of the hospital, which was built in three sections over 50 years. The central section is a standout Federal design by David Evans, Jr. from 1800. The hospital has had fire insurance longer than any other building in the country.


Girard Row
326-334 Spruce Street

Built in 1831-33, these fine Greek Revival rowhouses stand apart from other middle-class houses of the period for their stone trim and marble ground floor facings that contrast with the red brick.


Hill-Physick House
321 South 4th Street

Henry Hill made one of America’s first fortunes importing Madeira, the wine from Portugese islands that wasn’t taxed by the British. Madeira was the drink of choice for Thomas Jefferson who used it to toast the Declaration of Independence. Hill used his money to construct one of the town’s most splendid seats in 1786. From 1815 to 1837 this was the home of Philip Syng Physick whose grandfather, the renowned silversmith Philip Syng, designed the inkstand from which both the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were written, and which is still displayed at Independence Hall. Dr. Physick, who built his reputation fighting the Yellow Fever epidemic that claimed Hill’s life in 1798, is credited with being the first doctor to use a stomach pump and is often called the “Father of American Surgery.”

St. Mary’s Church
252 South 4th Street

Founded in 1763 as the city’s second Roman Catholic church, the Continental Congress met here officially four times. The church has been remodeled several times, the last in 1884 when the Gothic facade was added and the entrance moved on 4th Street. The cemetery dates to 1759.

Old Pine Street Church
412 Pine Street

Philadelphia’s first Presbyterian church was erected in 1704. Although Philadelphia is associated with William Penn and other Quakers, in fact by 1739, Presbyterians outnumbered all other religious denominations in Philadelphia. This building dates to 1768 and is the only Presbyterian church still standing in the city from the days before the American Revolution. The British Army bivouaced here in 1777 and used it for a hospital and stable. Notables buried in the churchyard include William Hurry, who rang the Liberty Bell the day The Declaration of Independence was read for the first time, Philadelphia symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy and mathematician David Rittenhouse of Rittenhouse Square fame.


St. Peter’s Church
313 Pine Street

The church was built by members of Christ Church in 1761. George Washington worshiped here. Four of early America’s finest architects and craftsmen all contributed at various times to the building of this meetinghouse. Robert Smith, a member of the Carpenters’ Company, built the church in Palladian style. The tower and spire were added in 1842 by William Strickland and the iron staircases (which are no longer there) were installed in 1846 by Thomas U. Walter. Two wooden angels made by William Rush were brought from Old St. Paul’s Church.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial
northwest corner of 3rd and Pine streets

This land has as eclectic a history as any in Philadelphia, with religious, political, military and commercial connections. The land was once owned by Jacob Duche who was the head of the Episcopal Church in the American colonies. It is believed that John Nixon, the first man to read the Declaration of Independence publicly, was born on the site, though not at this house. Edward Piszeck, the founder of Mrs. Paul’s seafood donated the building to the National Park Service in the early 1970s. But this Georgian townhouse built in 1775-1776 is on the national radar because it was briefly the home of Proceed to the northwest corner of 3rd and Pine Streets which was for a time was the home of Polish-born engineering genius, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, called by Thomas Jefferson, “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” As a commissioned colonel earning $6 a month, Kosciuszko first planned forts along the Delaware River during the Revolution and then masterminded defenses from West Point to Georgia.

Head House Square
2nd Street, between Pine and Lombard streets

In 1745 sheds, called the Shambles, were erected to allow merchants to gather in a marketplace to sell food and wares. By the early 1800s Federal-style headhouses were added at each end, used for city meetings and local fire companies. This is the nation’s oldest firehouse and, restored in 1960, marketplace.