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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Experience Philadelphia’s architectural gems
If you are travelling to Philadelphia, here are some ways to observe and learn about its architecture:
- Try a themed walking tour with a guide from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia at $15.
- Pace yourself with a self guided audio walk and tour by renting an MP3 player for $16, from the Independence Visitor Center. If you purchase a Philadelphia Pass, this is included.
- When your feet get sore or you need to cover more ground, jump on a Big Bus Company Tour for $27 or again get this included with your Philadelphia Pass.
- Tour Philadelphia City Hall, Tower Tours are $8 for adults and Interior Tours are $15.
See another fascinating historic building in Philadelphia, in this post about Eastern State Penitentiary.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,