Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800

Plate List



"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" –Isaac Newton, 1675

William Penn's symmetrical grid plan of Philadelphia, engraved by his surveyor-general Thomas Holme, was the foundation on which generations of Philadelphians built their metropolis. Birch's book of Philadelphia views published in 1800 is the foundation on which I built my comparative records, at present a forty-year project consisting of three exhibitions and two books.

The project was made possible through the immeasurable assistance of my family, friends and colleagues. It started in 1960 with an exhibition at the Free Library of Philadelphia of my set of framed Birch's views of 1800 with my photographs of the sites as they then appeared. I was the guest curator. Emerson Greenway, the Director of the Library and Ellen Shaffer, the Rare Book Librarian gave me their utmost support.

In 1982, Howell J. Heaney, the Rare Book Librarian at that time, invited me to redo the 1960 Birch exhibition adding my photographs of 1982. He was aware that I was taking them. It was to be the Free Library's contribution to the three hundredth anniversary celebration of the founding of Philadelphia. I agreed on the condition that there be an accompanying publication. Through generous grants from The McLean Contributionship, The Atlantic Richmond Foundation, SmithKline Beckman Corporation and C. J. Sloan and Company, Inc., a reduced facsimile of Birch's book of 1800 was published with my photographs of 1960 and 1982. Howell was the overseer on behalf of the Library and co-author. That was my first book and I drew on his knowledge and experience as an author for which I remain deeply grateful. I again wish to express my appreciation to Keith Doms, the then President and Director of the Free Library, for his interest and necessary support.

Lita Solis-Cohen, a well respected writer on antiques, in her Philadelphia Inquirer column gave high praise to the 1982 Birch exhibition and announced the forthcoming book of comparative views. She wrote that 550 copies of the 1250 printed would be available for public sale, 400 at Sessler's Book Shop on Walnut Street and 150 at the Free Library. Twenty-eight dollars was to be the cost for each [the lowest price at which Birch sold his book without color or a leather binding]. Most of the remaining copies were to be given to libraries and historical societies. The headline was "A Philadelphia gem at semi-precious price". By mid-morning the next day every copy had been sold and there was a long waiting list of anxious buyers for the book which would not be available for two months. Her article spurred immediate plans for republication. To meet the demand, in 1983, the Library and the University of Pennsylvania Press co-published a second printing of 3000 copies.

This book owes its origins to Diana Steele, Managing Director of Antique Collectors' Club, who suggested publishing a comparative record of views of Philadelphia in 1800, 1960 and 2000. The idea excited me and I solicited the involvement of Elliot Shelkrot, the current President and Director of the Free Library. He was enthusiastic and willing to co-publish with Antique Collectors' Club this two hundredth anniversary edition of Birch's views of 1800, and to have the Library mount a corresponding exhibition. For his unstinting cooperation and support, I am most thankful.

It was a genial experience working with the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia, in particular Suzanne L. Seiter, Vice-President, Communications and Development, who was the coordinator on behalf of the Free Library, William Lang, Rare Book Librarian, Chuck Broadbent, Director of Information Technology, Lynn Washington, Design Studio Supervisor, who prepared the exhibition, and Jeffery W. Perkins, Chief Financial Officer of the Free Library Foundation. It was a great pleasure too working with Diana Steele the Director of Antique Collectors' Club and members of her staff, especially Brian Cotton, Peter Robertson, my editor, Steve Mackinlay who supervised the reprographics, and Lynn Taylor, the designer of the book. Also Bud Mills of Professional Color who processed my 2000 photographs, John Elberson who printed the 1960 photographs and Will McLean who prepared the modern plan of the city in 1982, which was revised by Antique Collectors' Club for this edition. To all, I express my sincerest appreciation for their individual contributions.

The commentaries accompanying the Birch engravings and my photographs do not purport to give full histories of the specific sites, but rather seek to give the reader some generally known facts, and on occasion, the little known. In writing them I have turned to John F. Watson's Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, Edwin S. Stuart, 1905), first published in 1830 and expanded by Willis P. Hazard in 1879, to J.Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott's History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (Philadelphia, L.H. Everts, 1884), to Margret B. Tinkcum's "The New Market in Second Street," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 82 (1958), pages 379-96, and to Negley K. Teeteres' The Cradle of the Penitentiary: The Walnut Street Jail at Philadelphia, 1773-1835 (Philadelphia? 1955). Among the books listed in detail in the appendix I have relied on George B. Tatum's Penn's Great Town, especially for the dates of the completion and demolition of many of the buildings pictured by Birch, and on Historic Philadelphia. The authors of those works, from Watson to Wolf to Weigley, have written about Philadelphia with pride and affection, with grace and learning. Without their help my task would have been increased immeasurably.

In preparing my commentaries I have profited from conversations with James Greene, of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Bruce Laverty of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Kenneth Finkel of Atwater Kent Museum, Raymond Bednarczyk of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Richard Tyler of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Theresa Stuhlman of the Fairmount Park Commission, Philip Sheridan of Independence National Historical Park, Lita Solis-Cohen, senior editor of Maine Antiques Digest, Michael Angelo of the Independence Seaport Museum, Janet Finnie of Pennsylvania Hospital, Brenda Wright of Urban Archives, Temple University Library, Joseph Fillmyer of Homeport Alliance for Battleship New Jersey, Ruby C. Boyd of Mother Bethel AME Church, and Sue Wright of Christ Church.

I am most deeply indebted to:

  • my friend Charles Lord, whose enthusiasm for the project and his most valued suggestions inspired the character and extent of my commentaries;
  • to my niece Sydney A Lefkoe, who was not only my computer consultant and sounding board for ideas but a sensitive editor, and to my nephew Roy T. Lefkoe, who has given me his utmost support throughout the project;
  • to my faithful secretary Jane W. Camardese, who has provided indispensable help over the years of the project, and who was greatly relieved when I learned how to use the computer;
  • to my friend J. Welles Henderson, who has been a source of encouragement and stimulation over many years. He dignified my notes by calling them "commentaries" and urged me to include that word in the title;
  • to Mark H. Biddle, former Chairman of Independence Hall Association, Nick Gimbel, present Chairman, Jonathan Schmalzbach, Executive Director, and Doug Heller, the Association's Webmaster, for their suggestions, and efforts in publishing this book on the internet;
  • and lastly, to the many other individuals, whose names are not included here, who have during the course of forty years contributed in one way or another to the success of the overall project.