Carpenters' Hall

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Five Buildings and a Train

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From Philadelphia's earliest days, craftsmen who formed the Carpenters' Company were already constructing their community. Over the next three centuries, they helped shape a metropolis. Company members designed or erected structures by the hundreds — from modest row houses to high-rise towers. Too many of their early works have vanished. Yet Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley remain unsurpassed for the number of noteworthy historic buildings still in use and attributable to Company members. Here is but a sampling.


1699 — Oldest surviving work of a Carpenter's Company member is this black walnut pulpit and sounding board in Holy Trinity Church ("Old Swedes") on the banks of the Christina river in Wilmington, DE. Joseph Harrison and his two sons — John and Daniel — gained their reputations as master builders by erecting the first building for Philadelphia's Christ Church, a frame structure on the same site as the present sanctuary. Now the Swedish Lutheran pastor in Wilmington, the Rev. Eric Bjork, invited them to complete the church left unfinished by previous carpenters. Presumably the Harrisons, too, received payment not only silver pounds but room, board, washing and building materials. Working on a tight schedule, they closed in the roof, finished the interior, fabricated doors and box pews. Joseph, a master carver, made the pulpit. They also made their deadline. Holy Trinity Church was dedicated on Holy Trinity Sunday, June 4, 1699.

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Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia

1700 — One year later, almost to the day, the Harrisons made another dedication deadline — this time for completing carpentry at Gloria Dei Church (also known as "Old Swedes") in Philadelphia. The church, which barely escaped destruction by the builders of I-95, stands on the site of a log fort erected by Swedish settlers for defense and worship.

Daniel, who did not join the Carpenters' Company, built a row house for himself which still stands on south Front St., several blocks from Gloria Dei Church.

John Harrison, a specialist in fine interior carpentry, later received substantial payments for work at Christ Church and "inside work" at the State House (Independence Hall). He died in 1760. The two sons' father, Joseph, died in 1734.

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Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia

1827 — Walnut Street Theatre, America's oldest in continuous operation, received extensive renovations and a Greek revival facade in 1827, seventeen years after a group of equestrians opened the building as an indoor circus. Company member Joseph Randall (elected 1827; deceased 1856) — great grandfather of another member, John Harbeson — was the builder. Architect was John Haviland, designer of many Philadelphia structures. The achievement for which he gained recognition was the revolutionary axle-and-spoke design of Eastern State Penitentiary, on Fairmount Avenue.

The theatre, pictured here in 1865, had many "firsts." Edwin Forrest made his stage debut here. Today, a theatre two blocks west of the Walnut Street bears his name. Forrest's mansion at Broad & Master Sts. is home to the New Freedom Theatre. Charlotte Cushman, in 1842, was probably the first woman to manage a theatre. Edwin Booth performed Shakespeare on the Walnut's stage. His younger brother, John Wilkes, would be Lincoln's assassin.

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Courtesy: The Arch Street Presbyterian Church

1853 – Little is known of the career of Joseph DeNegre (elected 1856; deceased 1873) who in 1853 began building the imposing Italianate-style Arch Street Presbyterian Church, at 18th St. City Directories list him simply as "carpenter, 131 N. Juniper St.," one block north of City Hall, which would not be begun for two decades. Presbyterians and Episcopalians erected the city's most elaborate churches. At $100,000, Arch Street Presbyterian with its towering cupola and two corner bell towers or "minarets" dominated the neighborhood until construction a decade later of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul. The 1861 illustration shows architect Joseph C. Hoxie's original design; the crowning cupola and bell towers were removed 40 years later.

 
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Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia

1876 — The Centennial Exposition, until then the nation's largest, spread across 450 acres of west Fairmount Park. Aaron Doan (elected 1848; deceased 1885) worked on several buildings, including Ohio House, showcase of the Buckeye State. The ornate Victorian structure, one of only two remaining from the exposition, stands at States Drive and Belmont Ave. During the fair, several hundred thousand visitors came to Carpenters' Hall; the names of seventy thousand filled three guest books. A specially prepared historical booklet ran to three printings.

 
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Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia

1937 — The Crusader, the Reading Railroad's steam-powered, stainless steel express, shuttled passengers between Philadelphia's Reading Terminal and Jersey City, where they boarded ferries to Manhattan. Designer was John F. Harbeson (elected 1946; deceased 1986) whose varied accomplishments included nine high-speed lightweight trains built in the 1930's and early 40's by the Budd Company at their north Philadelphia plant. The names evoke railroading's golden years: California Zephyr, Empire State Express, Super Chief, Silver Meteor, Congressional.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Harbeson trained under the famed Paul Cret and later became his business partner. Harbeson, as a draftsman, developed Cret's sketches for the memorial arch at Valley Forge National Park into contract drawings and specifications. He followed his mentor as chairman of Penn's architecture department. On Cret's death in 1945, Harbeson succeeded him as consulting architect to the Battle Monuments Commission. For more than a decade Harbeson traveled to eighteen overseas battlefields and cemeteries, working with architects, sculptors and landscape architects who were preparing memorials to America's World War II casualties.

His hobby, collecting and even designing chessmen, became his passion. His collection became the subject of books and museum exhibitions. To the Carpenters' Company, Harbeson is remembered for his role in 1970 when he supervised replacement of the antiquated steam heating system and restoring the original fireplaces.

C.G.K.

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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