Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800

Plate List


Vibrant with trade and commerce, handsome with marble and brick, Philadelphia in 1800 was perceived by William Russell Birch as having "been raised, as it were, by magic power, to the eminence of an opulent city " in a little more than a century. Birch, an accomplished English enamel painter and engraver, came to the city, then the nation's capital, in 1794. Inspired by the prosperity and beauty of his new surroundings he conceived a series of engravings which would "give the most general idea of the town," its public and private buildings, busy street life, port and shipyards. The resulting twenty-seven views were published under the title The City of Philadelphia As it Appeared in the Year 1800. Acclaimed a masterpiece of American color-plate publishing, the book as an eighteenth century pictorial record of an American city is incomparable.

Describing the production of his book Birch wrote, "I superintended it, chose the subjects, instructing my Son (Thomas) in the Drawings, and our Friend Mr. (Samuel) Seymour in the Engraving." The exact role of each is open to question, for all the pictorial plates except one indicate they were drawn and engraved by "W. Birch & Son" William Barker engraved the title page and the plan of the city, and Richard Folwell was the printer of the book. Young Birch, who served his apprenticeship in this project, later became one of America's pioneer landscape and marine painters.

The engravings are dated 1798, 1799, or 1800, except for three which are undated. Some and probably all were sold separately. `Although Robert Campbell is named as publisher on eight of them, and as seller, with "W. Birch & Son " as publisher, on fourteen, his connection with the project seems to have ended before the publication of the book on December 31, 1800. William Birch alone is named on the title page as publisher.

"The price of the Work, in boards, (was) 28 Dollars; bound, 31 Dollars; if coloured, in boards, 44 1/2 Dollars." Subscribers, of whom there were 156 listed at the end of the book, included Mathew Carey, publisher, Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President of the United States, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect and engineer, Thomas Mifflin , former Governor of Pennsylvania, Richard Varick, mayor of New York, and British and Spanish diplomats Selected views with minor changes , were copied and used as illustrations in volume published in London and Stockholm . Some thirty years after his book was issued Birch wrote, "there is at this time scarsely one sett of the work in Philadelphia that was not sent to Europe."

A full account of the various editions of Birch's work, including collations and a table of the states of individual views is to be found in Martin Snyder's definitive articles, "William Birch: His Philadelphia Views " published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 73 (1949), pages 271-315, and "Birch's Philadelphia Views: New Discoveries," in the same journal, Volume 88 (1964), pages 164-173, from which many of the facts given here about Birch and his book were taken.

Birch's folio memorializes Philadelphia at the end of the eighteenth century when its development was at its peak This book commemorates the two hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Birch's views of Philadelphia in 1800 and five decades of revitalization of the City during which its development has moved toward another peak.

Seeds of revitalization were sown after World War II. In an exhibition held in 1947, Edmund N. Bacon, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, unveiled his innovative ideas for a better Philadelphia. The next year the Commission certified the rehabilitation of the area bounded by Front, Walnut, Eighth and Lombard Streets, now known as Society Hill. With a reformist city government elected in 1951 and the adoption of a Home Rule City Charter giving the mayor greater power, the way was cleared for imaginative redevelopment of the city. That year the city turned over to the National Park Service the custody and operation of the Independence Hall group of buildings, which became the nucleus of Independence National Historical Park.

By 1960 most of the Park and all of Independence Mall had been cleared except for historic buildings (Plates 7 and 17), and restoration of those was in progress. The American Philosophical Society had completed its new library within the Park, the Fifth Street facade being a reconstruction of Library Hall (Plate 19). In Society Hill restoration of residences had begun, and, with merchants relocated in the new Food Distribution Center in South Philadelphia, the Dock Street markets had been removed. West of City Hall the old Broad Street Station was down, as was the "Chinese Wall" that carried the tracks, and the site of the Wall the first three towers of the Penn Center office complex were up (Plate 28). Farther to the west the Schuylkill Expressway had recently been opened.

In 1960 a comprehensive twenty-year plan of greater significance was adopted by the City Planning Commission covering, industry, commerce, recreation and community facilities, residences and transportation throughout the city. The plan for Center City, among its other projects, proposed in detail the Market Street East and West redevelopment, the commuter connection tunnel with a new Filbert Street Station, the Chestnut Street landscaped shopping mall, recreational facilities at Penn's Landing, including a marina, and the Vine Street Crosstown Expressway.

In 1988 Plan. The additional center city major projects set forth in the Comprehensive Policies Plan include: building the Pennsylvania Convention Center and its expansion; the further redevelopment of Market Street East and West with hotels and office buildings, also the further redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, including Penn's Landing, and Delaware Avenue (now Columbus Boulevard; the development of the Avenue of the Arts (South Broad Street to Washington Avenue) including the Regional Performing Arts Center; returning Chestnut Street, which had been converted into a landscaped shopping mall under the 1960 comprehensive twenty-year plan, to a regular street; reconstruction of WHYY studios; and landscaping Schuylkill River Park (Spruce Street to the Art Museum).

Not all of the 1960 Comprehensive Plan, the 1988 Plan or subsequent plans for Center City has been accomplished, nor is all that has been achieved shown in the photographs reproduced here, as they are limited to the twenty-seven sites pictured by Birch.

Important achievements evident in the 2000 photographs include: landscaping of Independence National Historical Park (Plate 17 - Independence Mall, Race Street to Chestnut between Fifth and Sixth, which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania turned over to the National Park in 1974, was landscaped, but is now being redeveloped, adding the National Constitution Center, a new visitor center and Liberty Bell complex, Plates 7 and 20); building the new Mint (Plate 7); landscaping and redevelopment of Market Street East and West with hotels and office buildings (Plates 11 and 28); vista clearing for Christ Church (Plate 15); construction of a ramp leading into Market Street from Columbus Boulevard and the extension of Chestnut Street (Plates 9 and 10); landscaping and redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, including a hotel at Penn's Landing (Plates 2 and 4); redeveloping and landscaping Delaware Avenue (now Columbus Boulevard, (Plate 29); rebuilding City Tavern (Plate 27); building I. M. Pei's Society Hill Towers (Plates 2,16 and 27); restoration of residences in Society Hill (Plate 18); restorations and development in New Market (Plate 16); and the building of The Gallery (Plate 12).

Important achievements since 1960 that are not shown in the 2000 photographs include: Penn's Landing recreational facilities; new Packer Avenue and Tioga marine terminals; Avenue of the Arts, South Broad Street (the Regional Performing Arts Center is under construction); Commuter Connection Tunnel; University City Science Center; expanded academic facilities; Pennsylvania Convention Center; Veterans Stadium, the Spectrum and the First Union Center; Vine Street Expressway, Interstate 95, and modernization of the Philadelphia International Airport.

One of the finest copies known of Birch's City of the Year 1800, the Sidney E. Martin-Arthur J. Sussel copy, was purchased at auction by the Free Library in 1959. Prompted by that acquisition, the Library in 1960 held an exhibition of the book and my framed set of original engravings, together with photographs I had taken of the sites as they appeared that year. In August of 1982, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia, the Library remounted the 1960 exhibition adding my photographs of the sites taken that year. It also published a book that was a reduced facsimile of Birch's book with a modern map, photographs and commentaries inserted. Essentially it served as a catalogue of the exhibition. There was a second printing in 1983 co-published by the Library and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

This book, which is a sequel to the 1982-3 publication, is a 200th anniversary edition of Birch's views of 1800 with my comparative photographs of 1960 and 2000 and commentaries. It will be introduced by a third exhibition of my engravings and photographs at the Free Library.

In most instances my photographs were taken from Birch's vantage point, but at times, to show significant changes adjacent to the site, or to accomplish with the camera which Birch did through artistic license, or to avoid obstructions, the vistas have been broadened or the vantage points varied. All of the sites and principal buildings shown in the views, except the first and last, are located on the modern map printed on the page facing Birch's 1800 plan of the city (Plate3). A list of eight readily available books on Philadelphia and references to illustrations in them related to Birch's views are given in an appendix. Also in the appendix is a selection of notes and references pertaining to my commentaries.

I wish to especially express my gratitude to Elliot Shelkrot, the President and Director of the Free Library, to the Board of Trustees of the Library, and to Diana Steele, Managing Director of Antique Collectors' Club. Their encouragement and generous support have made possible the publication of this comparative record.

Birch's views are important historical documents, not only for their architectural aspects, but for the street life they record. I have endeavored to capture some of those same features in my photographs and hope that my comparative record will serve as a useful historical document. As Birch's views of Philadelphia in 1800 enter their third century they continue to illuminate the city's past glory and enrich its future.

S. ROBERT TEITELMAN 1 September 2000

(A revision of the introduction to the comparative record of 1982 written by S. Robert Teitelman and Howell J. Heaney)