Carpenters' Hall

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First School for Architects

By Carl G. Karsch

Decorative illustrations — a total of 48 — were added by John Haviland to his enlarged edition of Owen Biddle's "A Young Carpenter's Assistant." In prefaces to both volumes, the authors agreed that books printed abroad were "adapted almost entirely to the style of building in their respective countries, which differ materially from ours... Hence, two-thirds of such books are of little value to the American student of architecture."

In the chill dusk of evening in early November, 1834, forty young men trudged up two flights of stairs to the recently completed third floor of New Hall. They were about to take part, without realizing it, in one of the Company's most ambitious endeavors — the first school of architecture. Having paid their entrance fee ($1.00) and signed an attendance book, "scholars" took their places. Furnishings were plain: stools and large tables for drafting. Candles lighted the room. (Gaslights were eight years distant.) A coal stove provided heat. The teacher is George Strickland, overshadowed by his older brother, William, but a talented designer and draftsman. His office was a block away, opposite the First Bank of the U.S. on 3rd St. He gave instruction in mathematics, drawing and principles of architecture, illustrating lectures with models revealing details of construction.

Strickland had a unique teaching resource — the Company's superb collection of architectural books, most donated by members who built colonial Philadelphia. A basic text was "The Young Carpenter's Assistant," written and skillfully illustrated by Company member Owen Biddle and believed to be the first American volume on architecture. The year before the school opened, architect John Haviland revised Biddle's book, adding 48 of his own engravings. Today, these prized volumes remain in the Company library.

The Apprentices Library Company. Strickland's scholars had a bonus, the privilege of borrowing books from the nation's first circulating free library, the Apprentices Library Company. The name was misleading since the library's purpose was to provide "suitable reading matter [and] promote orderly and virtuous habits" for young men and after 1841, to women as well. In 1820, a dozen members of the Society of Friends organized the library at Carpenters' Hall. The library's first home was a few doors east on Chestnut St., in a building later the birthplace of the city's oldest surviving newspaper, "The Philadelphia Inquirer." For the next seven years the Apprentices Library moved to the Hall, probably occupying the same second floor rooms and bookshelves used by Franklin's Library Company. The library's next home — one of a half-dozen in its 150-year lifespan — was a short walk away at 7th & Ranstead Sts.

Courtesy: Independence National Historical Park
New Hall became a work in progress. Built as a two-story real estate investment (1791), the Company added a third floor school room, pictured here (1833), later a fourth story(1861). The building was demolished (1950's) by new owners, Independence National Historical Park, and rebuilt to its 1791 appearance.

New Hall was not really "new;" nor was this the first time the Carpenters' Company considered training future architects. The building was erected in 1791, when the federal government moved from New York to Philadelphia while awaiting creation of "Washington City." The original "Old Hall" was rented to a succession of tenants, beginning with Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War. New Hall's first floor had four rental offices, referred to as "apartments;" the Company met on the second floor "long room."

Thirteen years later, Owen Biddle proposed a novel idea — "forming an establishment under the patronage of this Company for the purpose of teaching the varied aspects of architecture." Biddle, 30 years old and a gifted designer, had just completed "The Young Carpenter's Assistant," illustrated with 40 engravings. No doubt this would have been the text. Nevertheless, at a special meeting in January, 1804, "the measure was abruptly defeated."

Budding architects would continue to learn the old fashioned way, as apprentices to master builders who owned large folio texts, most imported from Europe, depicting style and construction. Some attended private evening academies teaching the basics. Thomas Nevell, a Company member, advertised his school in October, 1771. Students overflowed the small house on south 4th St. near Pine, which still stands. Before the 1772 semester, he and fellow-member John Lort rushed to completion a frame school room behind the house. Nevell's venture failed to survive a third year as students and their teacher devoted themselves to the approaching Revolution.

Company secretary John Gilder recorded in his clear hand the historic resolution: "Therefore Resolved, that a committee of five be now appointed to devise and support a plan for the establishment of an Architectural School..."

New Floor, New School. A proposal adding a third floor to New Hall to increase rental income — and also replace the rotting roof structure — was vetoed in no uncertain terms in 1831. "...Places for meetings are not in as great demand as formerly; the [fire] engine and hose companies having provided rooms in their engine and hose houses. Rent received for the past year is about $30 after deducting expenses, scarcely compensation for the risk and trouble. . The roof now on will have a few years longer before it is removed."

Two years later, perhaps prodded by a deteriorating roof, the Company adopted a landmark motion acknowledging its heritage. The declaration first recalled the preamble to the 1786 charter of incorporation pledging the Company to advance "architecture and the art of building... Having now established a considerable architectural library, and having ample means to sustain the expense... therefore, resolved that a committee of five devise a plan for establishing an Architectural School within our own Hall, for the use and instruction of our own members, their sons and apprentices..."

An additional half-dozen resolutions dealt with specifics:

  • A third floor added to New Hall and furnished for the school,
  • A teacher appointed with a salary of $200 annually, plus $1.00 from each student,
  • Day classes of not less than 10 students, taught by same teacher,
  • Teacher to have use of library and give lectures on architecture,
  • School kept open five evenings a week, for six months,
  • Committee appointed each July to supervise the school.
Desperate for students, teacher George Strickland paid half the $16.50 bill placing advertisements in four newspapers.

The decision made, construction moved quickly. Lumber came from the yards of two members: James Linnard (11th & Pine Sts.) and Caleb Maule (6th & Vine Sts.) Managing the project was James Weer, a member who eventually taught in the school. He was one of six during its twelve-year lifetime. Expenses totaled $2,335.86 for the third floor, a new roof and at the south end a "piazza" enclosing a stairwell, a small room at the second and third floor levels and on the first, a privy. Furnishings for the school, including coal and candles, totaled $810.22.

The Company hoped that with such a large up-front investment, the school would not continue to drain the treasury. But except for the first year, that didn't happen. The "business model" required 40 students. Only in 1834 was that achieved when members enrolled 13 of their apprentices. After that, class size dwindled. Strickland helped pay for advertisements in four newspapers. Tuition was raised. Nothing worked. The market simply didn't exist.

William L. Johnston, listing himself as carpenter, draftsman and architect, was McArthur's teacher. Johnston "taught lines for $5 per quarter, shading and ornamental drawing for $10." In 1849, also the year of his death, Johnston designed the city's first skyscraper, the Jayne Building.

After the second year, the committee overseeing the school discovered most apprentices failed to pay even the modest tuition. Result: every scholar cost the Company $21. The committee concluded the architecture school "failed in its original intent and should be abandoned immediately." It wasn't. Each year the question was debated; each year the Company voted "to continue the architecture school during the coming winter... Room to be heated and lighted at the expense of the Company."

Architectural Celebrities. Three future architectural celebrities marked the school's closing years. John McArthur, Jr., whose uncle was a Company member, became the architect of Philadelphia's City Hall. He died in 1890, a decade before the building's completion.

William L. Johnston's last work was the eight-story prototype skyscraper for Dr. David Jayne, who with his son produced patent medicines. Johnston died in 1849 while the building was under construction.

Gordon Parker Cummings, the final teacher, was architect of an engineering breakthrough — Philadelphia's first structure supported by iron, rather than timber. He headed west early in the Gold Rush to seek his fortune in California, but not as a prospector. Cummings is remembered for buildings in San Francisco and as an architect for the capitol in Sacramento.

No doubt, few members regretted the school's passing, a costly venture which never met expectations. The school, in fact, was a unique achievement. It formed the keystone bridging an arch between 18th century apprentices tutored by master builders and architectural schools of the late 19th century.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
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