Carpenters' Hall

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A 19th Century Album

By Carl G. Karsch

Seldom, if ever, have 100 years so transformed a nation. In 1800, Americans were settling west of the Appalachians; most, however, clustered in the former colonies along the shores of the Atlantic. A century later, the United States bordered the Pacific. It became a continental nation, the world's first.

Other changes were equally dramatic. People traveled on railroads, not muddy ones. With the telegraph, messages spanned thousands of miles in seconds, not weeks.

Carpenters' Company members were schooled in the tradition of brick and wood frame construction. Now they became equally expert with stone, concrete, cast iron and structural steel. By definition, master builders handled the entire job — design, engineering, construction. As the century progressed, they increasingly worked from plans drafted by professional architects. Some members formed partnerships with architects, thus keeping jobs "in house."

By 1900, the Carpenters' Company had been transformed as much as the United States. Here is an album sampling some of their work.

Courtesy: Free Library of Philadelphia
Courtesy: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

RIOTERS TURNED TO ARSON, destroying Pennsylvania Hall three days after its completion in May,1838. Members of groups opposed to slavery pledged $40,000 to their new meeting place, which stood on 6th St. just west of today's National Constitution Center. Rioters stormed the building during an evening meeting, pelted the fleeing crowd with stones and set the structure ablaze. Firemen sided with the rioters by dousing neighboring structures — but not Pennsylvania Hall. William Betts, the master carpenter and a Company member, had to file suit for payment.


FRIENDS MEETING HOUSE in Germantown (1867) is built of stucco-covered stone but retains the simplicity and style of colonial meetings. Hibberd Yarnall originally advertised in city directories as a "builder and carpenter;" later he listed the firm as "architects and builders." On Hibberd's death, Albert E. Yarnall (not a Company member) formed a partnership with one of the first graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's new School of Architecture.


STATELY HOMES lined newly developed streets as the city expanded to its western boundary, the Schuylkill river. Joseph Hancock developed a portion of the row on Delancey St. (1856). A half mile distant on Walnut St., Samuel Bye purchased most of a city block to erect Victorian style houses.

Courtesy: Free Library of Philadelphia

HANDSOME MANSIONS for wealthy industrialists dotted North Broad St. This mansion, built for a wealthy brewer, was remodeled and enlarged (1880) by Benjamin Ketcham. Owners included the actor, Edwin Forrest, the Moore College of Art & Design, and today the Freedom Theater. Ketcham was one of many Company members who in 1891 signed the charter for the parent organization of the General Building Contractors Association

Courtesy: Free Library of Philadelphia

TWIN CULTURAL CENTERS on South Broad St. were the work of Company members. The Academy of Music (John D. Jones, contractor, 1857) became home to the Philadelphia Orchestra. In Horticultural Hall (Stacy Reeves, builder, 1870) the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society fostered interest in the flourishing American pastime — gardening. The Merriam Theater now stands on the site.


GRANITE-FACED STRUCTURES often required extensive carpentry. In 1855, a partnership of two members — John Killgore and John Hudders — finished the Leland Building on South 3rd St. The extent of interior carpentry can be seen in a lien for $11,000 they filed six years later against a stone church on Spring Garden St


THREE FIREPROOF BANKS within a block of Carpenters' Hall reveal the versatility of their builder, John Rice. Advertising as a "carpenter builder," Rice could easily produce Philadelphia's traditional homes of frame and brick. But he became equally adept erecting public buildings made of granite, marble and brick. Pictured here is the former Philadelphia Bank (1857), now the offices of DPK&A. Dan Peter Kopple is a Company member. Next door is the Farmers & Mechanics Bank (1854), part of the American Philosophical Society. One block east, nearly opposite the Hall, is the First National Bank (1865), the museum of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.


COLLEGE HALL became the first building (1870) on the new West Philadelphia campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Two Company members, George Watson and his son, George, Jr., also built two banks and the ornate, and greatly altered, mansion at 18th & Walnut Sts. The university's previous location was the "President's House" at 9th & Market Sts., erected in 1790 to entice the Federal government to remain in Philadelphia. President Washington's "white house" remained four blocks to the east.

Courtesy: Philadelphia City Archive

CITY HALL holds the record as the world's tallest masonry structure. Statistics: height 511 feet; lower walls 22 feet thick; 700 rooms; 30 years in construction (1871-1901); 250 sculptures by Alexander Calder; his statue of William Penn atop the tower is 37 feet tall. Superintending the monumental project were William C. McPherson, a Company member, and his two sons. Pictured here is City Hall under construction in 1881.

In colonial times, the square was the town "common" for grazing cattle, drilling militia and public executions.


DREXEL UNIVERSITY'S main building was completed in 1891, one year after banker and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel founded the school to advance technical education. Contractor Charles McCaul modestly advertised himself as a "carpenter." Motto engraved around the clock face urges students: "Be On Time."

Courtesy: Free Library of Philadelphia

READING RAILROAD'S fortunes rose and fell with anthracite coal mining in upstate Pennsylvania. Chartered in 1833, the Reading Company became an early conglomerate: hauling coal, making steel for rolling stock, building ships. In 1891 Charles McCaul began work on the Reading's new downtown terminal at 12th & Market Sts. Inside the "head house," as it was called, were Company headquarters and on the second floor a spacious waiting room. Passengers boarded trains enclosed in an arched, clear span "shed." Both the head house and train shed are part of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Open free to the public daily, except Mondays (and Tuesdays in Jan. and Feb.), from 10am-4pm

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a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.