Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800

Plate List

Author's Reflections

In 1954, when I acquired my folio of the first edition of Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800, I had no realization of the importance it would have in my life. I was fully aware of the importance of the book - that it is America's first color-plate book, that the twenty-seven pictorial engravings are a magnificent documentation of life in the principal city of the then new nation, and that the book has no equal. My original expectation was that my new treasure would slumber on a shelf and be enjoyed on occasions. To my surprise, I began leaving the book open on a table for longer and longer periods, constantly returning to study one or another of the views. Finally I made the decision to carefully unhinge the book, in a manner that could easily be reversed, and to frame the individual prints so that I could be surrounded by them in my daily life. That was a pivotal decision that not only gave me considerable enrichment but in 1960 enabled me to suggest to the Free Library of Philadelphia an exhibition. It was soon after the Library had purchased a first edition of Birch's book of views of Philadelphia in 1800, one of the finest examples known. The proposed exhibition was to feature the Library's new acquisition, my set of framed prints with photographs of the sites as they then appeared. I volunteered to do the photography and curate the show. The idea won approval. Because there was such keen public interest in the "now and then" theme, as the city was in the thrust of its revitalization, the exhibition time was extended from two to four months.

The set of framed prints was used by the Library in mounting a second Birch exhibition in 1982, that was held in conjunction with the three hundredth anniversary celebration of the founding of Philadelphia. At that time the engravings were shown with my comparative photographs of 1960 and 1982. There was an accompanying book, essentially a catalogue of the exhibition, that was first published by the Library in 1982 and reprinted in 1983. This book is a sequel, being a comparative record of Birch's views of 1800, and my photographs of the sites in 1960 and 2000. It commemorates the two hundredth anniversary of Birch's views of 1800, and its publication date will coincide with the opening of a third Birch exhibition to be held at the Library.

With the exception of my academic and military years, I have lived in New Jersey. My parents divided their cultural and social lives between two states, never regarding the common boundary, the Delaware River, as a barrier, even when it had to be crossed by ferry. Consequently my sister and I were raised feeling that we were living in greater Philadelphia, if not, Philadelphia, New Jersey.

My earliest recollection of the city goes back to when I was about three years of age. I accompanied my mother on a shopping trip to Wanamaker's, then Philadelphia's oldest and most beautiful department store (no longer in business, its building is now partially occupied by Lord and Taylor, a department store chain). It was winter and as we crossed the Delaware I was fascinated by the huge chunks of ice being churned in the wake of our ferry. Also thrilling to me, the young wide-eyed boy, were the blasting whistles; the side-to-side bouncing off the pilings as the boat came into its Philadelphia slip for a landing; the clang of the iron gates being swung opened for impatient passengers and drivers to disembark; and then, the long escalator ride to the elevated platform to board the Market Street subway train that squealed as it rounded the hairpin curve before descending under Front Street. Onward it went through the tunnel beneath Market Street. I recall my bewilderment when, holding my mother's hand, we surfaced at Thirteenth Street midst tall buildings, bustling traffic, mounted policemen and that man, Billy Penn, who stood motionless on top of City Hall tower. Wanamaker's too was exciting - its grand court with the resonant organ and the beautifully paneled tea room - but the toy department was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There, with an abounding curiosity, I was allowed to select a toy boat as my trophy for good behavior. Thus began my everlasting love of the city that in my childhood represented everything that was bigger and better.

Until I became a teen-ager, Philadelphia excursions to theaters, concerts, museums, lectures, sporting events (in the Connie Mack era) and visits with friends were usually led by one or both of my parents. They were avid members of the Philadelphia Forum, which sponsored an annual series of varied programs held at the Academy of Music. On occasion when they believed the subject would interest me I was invited to join them. Most memorable were illustrated lectures presented by the polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Richard Evelyn Byrd.

Gradually I became the master of my own Philadelphia pursuits. I was away for college and returned to Philadelphia as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, living just off the campus. Although dedicated to my studies I always found time to participate in other university activities and the cultural life of Center City.

After four years of active duty as a naval officer during World War II I commenced my practice of law in Camden, New Jersey. Soon I became a participating member of various Philadelphia and New Jersey non-profit organizations Later I served on the board of many. Those most relevant to my Birch project were the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Maritime Museum (now Independence Seaport Museum) and Independence Hall Association.

My forty year Birch project has been an energizing experience. It merged my long-time interest in the history and iconography of Philadelphia and the Delaware River with my interest in amateur photography.

I have often wondered how photographs of the Birch sites, if I could have taken them eighty years ago, would have compared. Some obvious differences would been found in the array of architecture, in the style of wearing apparel, commercial and private vehicles, public conveyances, such as trolley cars, and in street lighting, signage, ships and watercraft.

Being selective and more specific, the down river view of the City and Port from Treaty Tree Park (Plate 2) would not have included the Delaware River Bridge (now Benjamin Franklin Bridge - construction began in 1922) but it would have shown greater activity on the river, a succession of municipal piers (Plate 4) lined with cargo and passenger vessels (including those where Penn's Landing is today) but no high rise structures in the skyline near the river. Views along Market Street looking east (Plate 9) would have shown a ferry terminal at Delaware Avenue, the elevated tracks of the Market Street subway, and a portion of the turn-around loop for trolley cars (Plate 10). At Ninth Street (Plate 12), near the hub of department store business, there would have been crowds of hurrying pedestrians. Then looking west (Plate 11), City Hall Tower would have been the pinnacle of the skyline. At Ninth Street (Plate 13) the city's main Post Office and Federal Building (built 1884, replaced 1940) would have been prominent. Christ Church on Second Street, just north of Market (Plate 15) would have been screened by the unattractive commercial properties that are seen dilapidated in my 1960 photograph. All along Market Street there would have been a variety of street vendors and a clutter of trolley cars. The view at Center Square, where the Water Works once stood (Plate 28) would have shown City Hall with the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station (built 1882, demolished 1954, now Penn Center) in the background. The four photographs involving the Independence Hall group of buildings and garden would also have appeared differently. In the view showing the Front of the State House (Independence Hall, Plate 21) the commercial buildings along the north side of Chestnut Street (demolished during the 1950s in creating Independence Mall) and the Drexel Building at Fifth Street (built 1885 and razed 1956 in creating Independence National Historical Park) would have been evident. The view of Congress Hall and the New Theatre would have shown the earlier Public Ledger Building in the background (the present Ledger Building was completed in 1927). The scene showing the back of the State House (Plate 22) would have included in the background the Drexel Building (part of which was built on the site of Library Hall, demolished 1884, Plate 19). The handsome First Bank of the United States (Plate 17) would still have been bracketed by buildings, later than those that appear in the Birch engraving. Delaware Avenue (now Columbus Boulevard), near Old Swedes Church (Plate 29), would have been a mass of rail, wagon and truck traffic, lots of weeds and not a single tree bordering the street - hardly what Penn had envisioned.

I was born in 1916, eighty-four years ago, and have some vivid memories of Philadelphia during the 1920s and 30s. Most are unrelated to the Birch sites. I witnessed the building of the Parkway, the Art Museum, and at Logan Square, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Delaware River Bridge (now Benjamin Franklin) all were during the 1920s, also the Franklin Institute in the early 1930s. I remember the old West Philadelphia Pennsylvania Railroad Station that mainly handled through trains. It was replaced by Thirtieth Street Station (completed 1934). I boarded trains under the shed of the old Broad Street Station (built 1882, demolished 1954). In 1926, I ran under the massive, eighty-feet high replica of the Liberty Bell, the logo of and gateway to the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition, held at the end of South Broad Street (League Island Park). When radio was on the cutting edge of communications in the early 20s, on my small crystal set I faithfully listened to broadcasts from the Gimbel Brothers' department store station WIP. I rode doubledecker buses on Broad Street. They even traveled across the Delaware River Bridge to Camden. I fondly remember the John Wanamaker Men's Store on Broad Street that featured English imports. It was one of the most beautiful stores in the country. I cheered at many of the annual Thanksgiving Day football games between Penn and Cornell held at Franklin Field and saw Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, known as the A's, play at Shibe Park (renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953, demolished 1976). All that was before the construction of the Delaware, Schuylkill and Vine Street Expressways that today carry traffic through and around the city. It was a time when there were fewer motor vehicles and generally less congestion on the streets and highways. Of course gasoline prices were a pittance of what they are now. Ice cream cones cost only a nickel, as did a cup of coffee. The price of apple pie at a Horn & Hardart's automat or cafeteria was just fifteen cents, twenty cents ala mode.

I have written my reflections randomly, hoping they will give my readers some understanding of how and why I, a man from New Jersey, became, and remain so involved with Birch and in my beloved Philadelphia, as well as New Jersey. Like my parents, I have always thought of Philadelphia as a region that incorporates my part of New Jersey, and that the Delaware River is not a barrier - merely a common boundary that is crossed on the way to Philadelphia.