Exploring Historic Philadelphia Architecture
June 9, 2016
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Philadelphia City Hall and Masonic Temple

Whether you’re the French Imperialist or Greek Revival type, an Art Deco modernist or Federation fanatic, Philadelphia’s architecture has something for you. Not only does Philadelphia showcase a variety of styles, it pays close attention to detail. I like detail, especially in the visual sense. Some would call me meticulous, others pernickety, either way, I found my fill in the door knockers, sculpture, columns, shutters and wind veins of Philadelphia’s cityscape.

If like me, you’re a little rusty on American history, you may be surprised to learn that Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the United States between 1790 and 1800 while Washington D.C. was being constructed. This makes the “City of Brotherly Love” not only rich in great architecture, but also history. Enjoy a taste of the amazing historic architecture Philadelphia has to offer.

Benjamin Franklin Museum and B. Free Franklin Post Office

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin organized America’s first public postal service? Franklin was the first postmaster general of the United States and appeared on its first postage stamp! If you are going to send a postcard to a loved one from Philadelphia, make the effort to do it from this post office, where stamps are still cancelled by hand as they were in Franklin’s time. Also true to its colonial days, the pre-revolution B. Free is the only U.S. post office that doesn’t fly the stars and stripes.

Tucked away behind this post office is where Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home stood. Although the home hasn’t survived, a clever steel sculpture tracing the outline of the home stands in its place, and marks the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Museum.

B. Free Franklin Post Office
Benjamin Franklin's House, Philadelphia

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia’s City Hall achieves a couple of records including the largest municipal building in the United States. When William Penn, founder of the city, designed its future layout in 1682, he set aside the space that City Hall occupies for public buildings. However it wasn’t until 200 years later when the area was used for this purpose, and not until 1871 when construction commenced on the current Philadelphia City Hall.

Architect, John McArthur Jr, designed a Second (French) Imperial Style building with a first floor of solid granite and the remainder in brick, faced with marble. The 548 foot tower surmounted by a statue of William Penn is the tallest masonry structure without a steel frame in the world. The building’s exterior is elaborately decorated with sculptures depicting the seasons and continents, along with symbolic figures and heads.

Unfortunately we were too early in the season for a tour of City Hall and access to the Observation Deck, however these are high on my list for the next visit.

Philadelphia City Hall and Masonic Temple
Philadelphia City Hall and Masonic Temple
Philadelphia City Hall, Pennsylvania

Elfreth’s Alley

Elfreth’s Alley is the United States’ oldest continuously inhabited residential street. The narrow, cobblestone way is lined in quaint row houses constructed in Flemish bond brickwork with picturesque shutters and flower boxes. Not to mention a lovely little collection of brass door handles and knockers. The homes were built pre-industrial revolution, when the first floor of homes were commonly used for shops and businesses. Elfreth’s Alley first residents were artisans and tradespeople such as cabinet makers, grocers and tailors. Though post-revolution much of the work migrated into factories, the homes remained those of the working class. They fell into disrepair around the 1930’s and were threatened with demolition, until the community fought to have them preserved and restored for their historical value.

Georgian and Federal-style houses on Elfreth's Alley
Georgian and Federal-style houses on Elfreth's Alley
Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia
Elfreth's Alley - the oldest residential street in the US
Elfreth's Alley door knocker

The First and Second Bank of the United States of America

Following the Revolutionary War, the United States was in debt and each state had its own currency. At that time Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and the First Bank was housed in Carpenters’ Hall between 1791-1795. The Hall was built and owned by the The Carpenters’ Company of the City to house the oldest trade guild in America, and was used by a variety of other organisations over its history.

The First Bank finally moved into its own purpose built structure in 1795. The neo-classical style of the First Bank building was chosen to reflect the democracy and grandeur of ancient Greece. The charter for the First Bank was not renewed in 1811. However following the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the U.K., the need for a national bank was realised again. The Second Bank was founded as a result and got its own building in a Greek Revival style structure that was designed by architect William Strickland to replicate the Parthenon, completed in 1824.

Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia
The Carpenters' Hall was built (and owned) by The Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia, in Georgian style
Library Hall
Library Hall
The First Bank of the United States, Philadelphia
The First Bank of the United States - note that they could only afford a marble facade for the front of the building, and the remaining brick was left exposed
United States' First Bank
The First Bank of the United States has two eagles, one crafted by artist Clodius F. Legrand in 1797 sitting on the pediment, and the second, a golden eagle perched above the side gate
United States' Second Bank, Philadelphia
The Second Bank of the United States

Merchants Exchange Building

The Merchants Exchange is another William Strickland creation. With the growth in popularity of the Greek Revival architecture, Strickland channeled his talents in getting the style to conform to the triangular city block that the Exchange had been allocated. The ornate decoration, Corinthian columns and lantern tower take inspiration direct from Athens, while the semicircular facade at the rear of the building make the building unique and memorable.

Merchant Exchange, Philadelphia
Merchants' Exchange Building
Merchants' Exchange Building

Independence Hall

Independence Hall is the only glimpse inside for today’s post. A tour of the Hall revealed not only the commonly viewed lower level, but the early tourist season meant our small group could take a rare peak at the second story too. Historically this is a very significant location, where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed. The Georgian style building that resembles English country homes was chosen by Alexander Hamilton. The plans were drawn up by master builder Edmund Woolley. Though restored and evolved several times, the exterior retains most of its 18th century essence. Our old friend William Strickland had a hand in restoring the steeple in 1828, to which he added a clock and removed some of the original ornamentation.

Inside much of the original wood paneling has been replaced, however Samuel Harding’s carvings remain in the central hall, and on the profiles of the stairs.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia
The steeple of Independence Hall simplified by William Strickland in 1828
Samuel Harding carvings in the Central Hall, Independence Hall, Philadelphia
Samuel Harding carvings in the Central Hall
Governor's Council Chamber, Independence Hall
Governor's Council Chamber on the second floor of Independence Hall
Independence Hall interior stairs
Independence Hall interior stairs

Liberty Place

For something a little more modern, you might like One and Two Liberty Place. This pair of art deco skyscrapers built in the late 1980’s caused much controversy as they violated a 1950’s ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to build no higher than 491 feet so that the William Penn statue on City Hall could continue to preside over the city. One Liberty Place is the tallest building in the city at 960 feet, featuring blue and silver metallic glass and masonry bands in gray granite. Architect Helmut Jahn referenced New York’s Chrysler building in his design.

One Liberty Place, Philadelphia
One Liberty Place
United States Customs House, Philadelphia
US Customs House, also in the art deco style

Experience Philadelphia’s architectural gems

If you are travelling to Philadelphia, here are some ways to observe and learn about its architecture:

See another fascinating historic building in Philadelphia, in this post about Eastern State Penitentiary.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia
The Liberty Bell with Independence Hall in the background
Exploring Historic Philadelphia Architecture

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.


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