Return to Independence Hall Area

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Ben Franklin, the Declaration of Independence, Betsy Ross, the Constitution, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, William Penn, and Carpenters' Hall.

Here is where a country was born. The buildings, the taverns, and the cobbled walks used by the Founders of America are, in great number, preserved for all to enjoy. Come and take a "virtual walking tour" of the Historic District — the Most Historic Mile in America.

On our stroll through the gardens and green walks, the streets and alleys, in and out of the buildings of today's city we sense what Philadelphia was like long ago and ultimately what the roots of American history are.

When we consider that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — the documents upon which the United States is founded and which have inspired other democracies of the world — were written and adopted here, that our first five Presidents were involved in the life of Philadelphia and that of the infant republic while they lived here, and that the greatest American of the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin, was — when not abroad — engaged in every phase of Philadelphia activity, it is easy to understand why the area has been termed the most historic square mile in the nation.

The city of Philadelphia grew westward from the Delaware River. Construction was started on Independence Hall in 1732, only fifty years after the founding of the city by William Penn. At the time, the area between 5th and 6th Streets was still on the edge of things.

Some forty years later, when the events leading to 1776 were involving the citizenry, the city had grown west toward 8th Street. The streets were still unpaved in the thriving port city and at that time the square, or "State House Yard" as it was called in the 18th century, was not developed as we see it today. The city was unlighted, too, and except for an occasional lantern on a house or tavern, or one carried by the watch, all was in darkness after nightfall.

Welcome Park
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A logical starting point for our tour is Welcome Park, an homage to the city's founder, William Penn. Located on the site of the Slate Roof House, Penn's rented home in Philadelphia, the park was named for the Welcome, the ship which brought Penn to America. A timeline on a wall at the site enumerates Penn's accomplishments interspersed with the historic events that were happening during Penn's lifetime. In 1682, Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme laid out the city of Philadelphia. Their map is depicted in marble on the ground as part of the park's design. In the middle of the park is a miniature version of the statue of William Penn which crowns City Hall.

City Tavern
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Across the street is City Tavern, once the political, social, and business center of Philadelphia. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both owe much to the food and spirits consumed at the tavern. In one room a patron might hear a concert or an opera; in another, the latest political news; in yet another the price of sheep and sorghum. It was to City Tavern that Paul Revere rode bearing the news that the British had closed Boston Harbor. And it was here also that the delegates to the First Continental Congress met before choosing to convene at Carpenters' Hall.

Today patrons may enjoy a "feast of reason and flow of soul" in what John Adams called the "most genteel tavern in America," in this building which was reconstructed in the 1970s.

Merchant's Exchange
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Around the corner is the Philadelphia Merchant's Exchange, designed by William Strickland, one of the foremost 19th-century architects, and built between 1832 and 1834. It was originally a gathering place where merchants met to barter or sell their cargoes and merchandise. The cornerstone was laid on the 100th anniversary of Washington's birth.

This masterpiece of elaborate Greek Revival has a Corinthian portico on the west front and an unusual semicircular apse punctuated by columns on the east, facing the river. The tower is not a conventional cupola, but a free adaptation of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. From here ships could be seen approaching up and down the river. The small cobblestone way, now Dock Street, on the north side marks the site of Dock Creek, one of many small creeks which originally flowed in from the river.

First Bank of the United States
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Up the street is the First Bank of the United States. This oldest bank in the United States was erected between 1795 and 1797 and was once described as a "stately...building still standing in lonely grandeur." Since those words were written, the National Park Service has developed the area and the building's splendid setting we see today is the result.

The building was occupied by the First Bank of the United States (founded 1791) until 1811 when its charter lapsed.

Stephen Girard (1750-1831), a French immigrant who succeeded very rapidly in Philadelphia as merchant and ship owner and whom we remember as a philanthropist, bought it for his private bank in 1812 and the Girard National Bank occupied the building after his death, from 1832 until 1926.

The handsome gates, which flank the building and lead to the park, have been erected in recent years.

A notable feature of the building is the pediment which is adorned with a beautifully carved American eagle, and the leafy Roman Corinthian capitals give it a special grace.

This is the future home of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia.

Old Visitor Center
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The Old Visitor Center across the street (notice the reflection of the First Bank) is now the Independence Living History Center Archaeology Laboratory, an open-to-the-public feast of shards, bones, and broken glass. The Visitor Center has moved to the Mall, north of the Liberty Bell Center. The bell in the tower here, cast at Whitechapel Foundry, was a gift to the people of the United States in 1976 from Queen Elizabeth.

Bishop White House
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Returning south, a right on Walnut Street brings you to the Bishop White House. It was the home of William White (1748-1836), rector of Christ Church and St. Peter's, who was also Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania. He was Chaplain of the Continental Congress and later filled the same office for the United States Senate. Important men and women of his time came here as guests, including George Washington.

The first and second floors are open to the public and the furnishings are all of the period, fine examples of the time and an indication of the social standing of the Bishop and his family. The dining room and kitchen are exceptionally fine examples of the period. There is even an inside "necessary," an unusual feature at a time when these conveniences were in the back garden.

Walnut Street Garden and Houses
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18th Century Garden
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St. Joseph's garden

Adjoining the row is an authentically planted 18th-century garden, which recreates many features of formal gardens of the 1700s. Neat pathways, geometric flower beds, small arbors and gazebos are all characteristic of early Philadelphia gardens. It is maintained by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the flowers and shrubs are set out in the beds according to the season. It is spectacular in the spring when the tulips and hyacinths are in bloom, and one may sit in the summer house, a favorite retreat for walkers in this section, to enjoy the prospect in any season.

The houses along this row are either restorations or reconstructions.

On the other side of Walnut Street is a small park and garden, leading into St. Joseph's Church — We speak more about St. Joseph's on the Society Hill Tour. 339 and 341 Walnut are reconstructions of houses originally built in 1775.

The Philadelphia Contributionship
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Across 4th Street is the headquarters of The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire — the oldest fire insurance company in America, founded by Benjamin Franklin and his friends in 1752 and designed by Thomas U. Walter, who designed the Capitol Dome in D.C.

The firm's firemark — four interlocked hands, and known as the hand-in-hand is displayed to this day on many homes and businesses. When volunteer fire companies responded to blazes in the city's early years, a firemark on the burning building meant the structure was insured — and that the insurance company would reimburse the fire company for a job well done. Sometimes rival companies would arrive at a fire simultaneously and fisticuffs would ensue in order to determine who had the honor of putting out the blaze — and who would receive the money from the insurance company.

Todd House (Dolley Madison)
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On the corner of 4th and Walnut Streets stands the Todd House, home of Dolley Madison. It was built in 1775 and occupied from 1791 to 1793 by John Todd, Jr., and his wife, Dolley Payne. After Todd's death in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, she married James Madison, a young Virginia politician who was to become our fourth President. Stephen Moylan, the Revolutionary War general, lived here from 1796 to 1807.

Carpenters' Hall
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Walk north along 4th, halfway to Chestnut and there, in the middle of the green, you'll see Carpenters' Hall — where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. This landmark building was erected between 1770 and 1774 by the Carpenters' Company, the oldest builders' organization in the United States (formed in 1724). Carpenters were architects as well as builders in those days, it should be noted.

The Company published a book of rules and prices for its members in 1786. Articles and Rules was also a pattern book, and its use was restricted to members of the Carpenters' Company who faced expulsion if they showed it to outsiders. There is an amusing story of Thomas Jefferson's writing for a copy of the book in 1817, but even the former President — an amateur architect — was denied access to the secrets of the Carpenters' Company.

Carpenters' Hall has always stood out architecturally. Its proportions are perfect; it has a sense of balance, of time and place, and it was designed to endure. The Carpenters' Company still owns and maintains the building and holds meetings here. From September 5 to October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress met in the eastern half of the bottom floor. Robert Smith, who designed the building for use as a guild hall (restored in 1857, and opened to the public), was a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and Samuel Rhoads of the Carpenters' Company was a delegate to the First Continental Congress. Note the top-right window — That's where the Independence Hall Association's offices are!

New Hall (Military Museum)
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This building is today the Military Museum at New Hall. The present structure is in fact a reconstruction of the one built in 1790 and used by the War Department in 1791 and 1792. It now houses the Army-Navy Museum, and there are flags, guns, swords, epaulets, uniforms and medals on display. There is also a diorama depicting the establishment of the Continental Marine Corps at Philadelphia's Tun Tavern in 1775.

Children and adults love "Try Your Hand at Maneuvering for a Sea Battle." In this display the left switch controls the ship's rudder, the right trims the sails. Instructions tell us to "assume a southern wind" and, with success, a green light glows. It is a splendid way of making history come alive.

Just outside the Military Museum is an original "watch box" of old Philadelphia. The "watch," who reported, "It's six o'clock and all's well," kept an eye out for fires, thefts, attack by the enemy and any untoward events during the night. The watch box was his protection from rain, wind and cold between his rounds.

Pemberton House
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Down the cobbled walk from Carpenters' Hall is Pemberton House, a reconstruction that today houses a bookstore and souvenir shop run by the National Park Service.

Franklin Court
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Franklin's "Ghost House"
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Printing shop — home of the Aurora

Simply cross Chestnut Street and walk down the alley to discover Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin's last home. No one knows exactly how the house originally looked. Where the house stood is now a "ghost house," designed by the architectural firm of Venturi-Scott Brown.

The flagstones in the courtyard display quotations from letters of Franklin and his wife Deborah. A below-ground museum has audiovisual devices to give the scope of Franklin's life and work. Franklin began his house here in 1763; his wife Deborah moved into it in 1765, after he had left for England. Franklin, "the good Doctor," didn't see it until a decade later, although he wrote his wife detailed letters as to what he wanted done. The house was completed in 1788, two years before his death. In 1812 the house was demolished.

322 Market Street was home to William Duane (1760-1835), the fiery editor of The Aurora who married the widow of Franklin's grandson, from 1802 to 1809, as did James Wilson, an Irish immigrant who became editor of the paper. A century later Wilson's grandson, Woodrow Wilson, was elected President.

Second Bank
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Between 4th and 5th Streets, the splendor of the Second Bank of the United States confronts us. It is a superb example of the Greek Revival and one of Philadelphia's most handsome buildings. The architect was the same William Strickland who designed the Philadelphia Merchant's Exchange and the steeple of Independence Hall. The bank was built between 1819 and 1824. Its facades are adaptations of the Parthenon with north and south Doric porticoes.

Inside, the great banking room has a barrel-vault ceiling springing from Ionic colonnades. Bought by the federal government in 1844, it was used as the Custom House until 1934 and is popularly known in Philadelphia as "the old Custom House." Today the bank houses the portrait gallery, containing over one hundred Revolutionary and Federal portraits. Many of the portraits were painted by noted artist Charles Willson Peale and once hung in his eponymous Peale Museum — for a time located on the upper floor of Independence Hall.

Library Hall
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Franklin bust at Library Hall

Adjacent to the Second Bank is Library Hall, 105 South 5th Street. This 1959 reconstruction of the 1790 building was originally built for the Library Company of Philadelphia. It is now occupied by the library of the American Philosophical Society.

Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the Philosophical Society's library contains an unrivaled collection of Franklin's books and papers as well as those of other great scientists from then until now. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Caspar Wistar, David Rittenhouse, Baron von Steuben, the Marquis de Lafayette and James Wilson were members of the Society.

Philosophical Hall
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Across the street is Philosophical Hall, owned by the American Philosophical Society. It is home to the country's oldest learned association and is the only privately owned building on Independence Square, which contains Independence Hall itself. Erected between 1785 and 1789, it contains Franklin's clock and library chair and the chair Jefferson is said to have used while writing the Declaration of Independence. The museum is open to the public.

Independence Square
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Birthplace of a nation

Here we are on Independence Square. There are three buildings connected by arcades: in the center is Independence Hall flanked on the left by Old City Hall and on the right by Congress Hall. The Second Continental Congress met here, Independence was declared here, the Constitution was ratified here, and the Liberty Bell rang out from here. From 1790 to 1800, the United States Supreme Court, the Congress, the House of Representatives, and the President governed from these buildings.

Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall
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The three buildings, seen from the south
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Old City Hall

Let's start at Old City Hall. The building was erected between 1789 and 1791. It was first intended for use as City Hall, but from 1791 to 1800 it housed the United States Supreme Court, which was presided over by John Jay until 1795. It served as Philadelphia's City Hall from 1800 to 1874, when the city government moved to the present site, covered in the Virtual Walking Tour of Center City.

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Independence Hall

The State House or, as it is popularly known, Independence Hall, was begun in 1732 and considered finished by 1756 as the Pennsylvania State House. Its architects are thought to have been Edmund Woolley and Andrew Hamilton. Until 1799 the building served as the meeting place of the provincial and state governments. The Second Continental Congress met here. The Articles of Confederation were drafted and ratified here. And, the stormy sessions of the Constitutional Convention, presided over by Washington, were also held here.

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The spire of Independence Hall

The present spire which tops the tower proper was added by William Strickland in the restoration of 1828 — a fact not generally known.

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Bronze plaque

Before entering the Hall, note two bronze markers in the flagstone pavement; one commemorates the flag-raising here by Abraham Lincoln (pictured), February 22, 1861. The flag he raised had 34 stars, the last one for Kansas, which had just been admitted to the Union. The other marker is to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who spoke on the spot July 4, 1962.

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Statue of Washington

In front of the entrance itself is a familiar statue of Washington erected in 1869. Philadelphia schoolchildren, beginning in 1860, gave their pennies to pay for it.

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Washington's "Rising Sun" chair

To the left of the entrance hall is the Pennsylvania Assembly Room. Here the delegates from the thirteen colonies gathered and by July 4, 1776, had adopted the Declaration of Independence.

The most important treasures in the room are the chair used by Washington during the Constitutional Convention, with its rising sun carved on its back and the silver inkstand designed by Philip Syng, used for the signing of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The room has been restored to its appearance at the time of the signing and the chairs, tables and writing equipment are of the period.

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Supreme Court

Across the hall is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chamber with its handsome ochre-painted walls and the coat of arms of the Commonwealth above the bench. There are a prisoner's dock and jury boxes. Prisoners stood in the dock throughout the course of their court proceedings — giving rise to the expression "stand trial."

The visitor should ascend the tower staircase slowly to savor the beauty, the simplicity and the elegance of the tower itself, with its Palladian window facing the old square and framing the statue of Commodore John Barry, "The Father of the American Navy," standing among the ancient trees.

To the left on the second floor is the Governor's Council Chamber, its windows enhanced by blue shades and valances. The eight chairs and the armchair surrounding the table are complemented by eight silver candlesticks. This is the chamber where William Penn's sons and grandsons, or their appointed representatives, presided over the Provincial Council, the highest legislative body in the colony.

Amid elegant surroundings the Royal Governor officially received members of the Pennsylvania Assembly, foreign dignitaries and Indian delegations. The events of 1776 brought an end to the Provincial Council, but similar authority was vested in a Supreme Executive council over which Franklin presided from 1785 to 1788. The room has all the richness of the 18th century, but, with it, directness and simplicity, too. It was a working council room, with its grandfather's clock, telescope and two terrestrial globes.

The Long Gallery, which dominates the second floor, is flooded with north light from nine windows overlooking the three-block-long vista of Independence Mall. The chamber, when completed in 1745, was the largest public room in the Province of Pennsylvania. Suppers, balls and Grand Illuminations were held here to honor the great or mark public events.

In 1777 the British occupied the state house and converted these rooms into hospital wards for captured and wounded soldiers. The other room on this floor is the Committee or Assembly's Chamber. From 1747 to 1752 it served as a combined committee room and library for the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was then given over to the militia of the city of Philadelphia for the storage of supplies and small arms. In 1775 the Pennsylvania Assembly temporarily convened here, while the first floor chamber was occupied by the Continental Congress.

Independence Hall was used for parties in the 19th century, and among those so honored here were Lafayette, Henry Clay and Presidents Jackson, Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Among those illustrious Americans who have lain in state here are Lincoln, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and the Arctic explorer, Elisha Kent Kane.

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Clock tower

Descending to the first floor, leave Independence Hall by the south door, which gives onto the square. In 1972 the National Park Service replaced the great outdoor clock, which was originally set into the west wall in 1752 and removed in 1828. A 14-foot carved replica of the remarkable clock head was installed on top of the 40-foot soapstone case structure.

The hurried visitor may rush on, but linger if you can — saunter about the winding paving-stone paths and look at the Hall from the vantage point of the square. The proportions of the tower alone delight the eye, the symmetry of the building — in fact of the entire complex of buildings — is a tribute to the artisans and men who built it. Here is the balance and order of the 18th century at its apogee.

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Congress Hall

And when we speak of these qualities, in some ways the epitome is yet to be seen. For, in Congress Hall, on the northwest corner of the square, is the distillation of all that was fine in the architecture of that remarkable time. It is small, self-contained, functional and beautiful.

Congress Hall, constructed 1787-1789 as the Philadelphia County Court House, served as the meeting place of the Federal Congress from 1790 until 1800, when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. Later in the 19th century it housed federal and local courts. Perhaps its most historic associations are Washington's inauguration here for his second term as President and John Adams' taking of his oath as President in 1797.

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Congress Hall

On the first floor is the House of Representatives Chamber. The valances of dark green above the windows enhance the mahogany of the desks and the studded leather chairs. In the south bay is an alcove where Representatives smoked and had a glass of sherry, port or madeira during the recess.

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Inside Congress Hall

The staircases, right and left of the fan-lighted door, are steep but they lead the visitor on to unexpected pleasures. The second-story landing, with the brass and glass lantern suspended above it, looks north as does the Long Gallery in Independence Hall. Here, however, the windows are larger and there is a sense of being airborne when looking from them.

If the effect is too dizzying, there is a handsome settle on which to sit and look down the hall to the Senate Chamber. What the eye sees from this prospect is the small dais with its exquisite canopy in rich crimson. It is, in truth, a miniature throne. The chamber itself, with its matching valances framing the Venetian blinds, the deep red leather of the chairs and again the mahogany of the desks, is one of the most perfect rooms to be found anywhere. It was a stage setting for the Senate debates.

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Eagle fresco

And to add further esprit there is an 18th-century fresco of an eagle, and the plaster beading on the ceiling — both elegant touches. An even smaller visitors' balcony than the one in the House of Representatives chamber overlooks the Senate.

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Congress Hall

On leaving Congress Hall by the front door, turn and study for a moment the perfectly proportioned windows, the door, its fan light and the tiny iron balcony above.

Atwater Kent Museum
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For an intimate look into Philadelphia's past, do not miss the Atwater Kent Museum.

Once the home of the Franklin Institute, the museum was designed by John Haviland and built between 1825 and 1827. This small but choice collection is devoted exclusively to Philadelphia history. The museum is intimate and the collection a potpourri. Included in the collection are an 18th-century cockroach trap and a 19th-century rogues gallery of mugshots from the Philadelphia Police Department. Special exhibits detail such subjects as Philadelphia's industrial heritage where the curious visitor will find that John Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" hat favored by Tom Mix was manufactured in Philadelphia.

Graff House
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Walk to the corner of 7th and Market Streets to the site of the Jacob Graff House, where the Declaration of Independence was written. It was reconstructed for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Jacob Graff, a bricklayer, built the house in 1775. It was a small brick dwelling, 16 by 50 feet, with two rooms on each floor and a center stairway. In one of his rented rooms on the second floor Jefferson worked from June 10 to June 28, 1776 to draft the document that was to change the world.

President's House
Conjectural elevation copyright 2002 Edward Lawler, Jr.

The house no longer exists, but it was the "White House" of the United States from 1790 to 1800 when Philadelphia was the capital. It was the center of the Federal Branch of the government for Washington and John Adams, prior to the capital moving to Washington, DC.

The new Liberty Bell Center partially covers some of the house's backbuildings and stands just in front of the site of the slave quarters that housed some of Washington's slaves.

Liberty Bell
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Our last stop is the Liberty Bell, symbol of freedom worldwide. In 1752 the first "Liberty Bell," cast to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Penn's Charter of Privileges, arrived from England.

The original bell cracked while being tested. Two Philadelphians, John Pass and John Stow, recast it and it was finally hung in April 1753. When the British entered Philadelphia in 1777, it was spirited away to safety in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The bell cracked again in 1835, when tolling for the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall.

On the bell's outside face are the words from Leviticus XXV:10, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."

The Bell became iconic when Abolitionists used this bell, with its inscription that in its Biblical context speaks of freeing slaves every Jubilee year. It was later associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Its most famous ring, on July 8, 1776, summoning the citizens of Philadelphia to the State House Yard to hear the Declaration of Independence read by Colonel John Nixon, an ancestor of Richard Nixon is recognized by historians to be a fiction. The bell tower was in such a state of disrepair that they didn't risk ringing the bell.

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