A Walk Through History
Society Hill is neither an elevation nor the site and badge of social position. It was the Free Society of Traders to whom William Penn made liberal concessions of land and privileges that gave its name to Society Hill. In 1683 its assets included a sawmill, a glasshouse and a tannery. It fell upon hard times in the 20th century, but today it is the very model of urban renewal and urban amenity in a historic setting. Today Society Hill includes the land from the Delaware River to Washington Square and from Walnut Street to Lombard Street. The charm of Society Hill is that its homes are not museums, but are lived in by Philadelphians who delight in 18th and 19th century houses. It is a vital part of the city. In the 18th century Society Hill was removed from the avenues of commerce and given the residential character it retains today.
Locust St. houses
Magnolia and Rose Gardens
Men and women of history, whose names are still familiar, walked these streets, worshiped in these churches, sat by these firesides. Today, literally thousands of these houses remain and many have been restored to their past glory.
We begin on Locust Street between 4th and 5th Streets. There are only six dwellings in the one block, gardens predominating. On the north side a green walk leads to the Greek Revival porch of the Second Bank of the United States (for more information on the bank, read our Historic District tour). Midway in the walk is a rose garden (see next page).
On the north side of Locust Street is the Rose Garden, planted by the Daughters of the American Revolution and dedicated to the Signers. The garden is maintained by the National Park Service.
On the south side of Locust Street is the Magnolia Tribute Garden. There is no more quiet or restful spot in Philadelphia than this beautifully balanced park. A gentle stream of water reaches skyward from the fountain. Benches for the elderly, for readers seeking quiet or for a mother with a sleeping child flank the paths. Over the wall can be seen the roofs of houses or an occasional headstone from St. Mary's churchyard beyond. And the sound of birds is heard continually in this lively garden, contributed by the Garden Club of America in honor of the "founders of our nation."
Founded in 1733, it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city. The entrance to the church is from intimate Willings Alley just off 4th Street. Going through an archway with iron gates, one recalls the legend that Benjamin Franklin advised the Catholic congregation to design the narrow entryway so that, if religious toleration in Philadelphia ever ran a little thin, the church would not be so open to attack. The first church was built in 1733, enlarged in 1821 and rebuilt (the present building) in 1838. It survived a period of Nativist ("Know-Nothing") anti-Catholic rioting in 1844. A Philadelphia author, Agnes Repplier, described Old St. Joseph's as a "church as carefully hidden away as a martyr's tomb in the catacombs.
The archway leads to an inner courtyard, with the rectory and its beautifully balanced facade on the right. A quiet spot, it provides a fitting entry into the church. On the north wall there is a commemorative plaque paying tribute to William Penn, who brought religious toleration and understanding to the colony. The inscription reads:
When in 1733
St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church
was founded and
Dedicated to the Guardian of the Holy Family
it was the only place
in the entire English speaking world
where public celebration of
the Holy sacrifice of the Mass
was permitted by law.
One of the most historically important buildings in Philadelphia is the Shippen-Wistar House, built about 1750 by Dr. William Shippen (1712-1801), a prominent physician who served in the Continental Congress in 1778 and 1779. It was then occupied by Dr. William Shippen, Jr. (1736-1808), one of the first to use bodies for dissection and who had to defend himself in the press against the accusations of "body snatching." Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and John Adams were among the guests known to have visited. And, of course, Washington slept here. In 1798 the house was sold to Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761-1818). Another of Philadelphia's famed physicians, he was one of the early exponents of vaccination. Wistar's open houses for fellow members of the American Philosophical Society and their guests, transient dignitaries of the learned, scientific and artistic world, started the long tradition of "Wistar Parties" which continued after the doctor's death. The wisteria (also spelled wistaria) vine was named for this Wistar, too.
Adjoining the Shippen-Wistar House at 240 South 4th Street, and abutting the burial ground of St. Mary's Church is the Cadwalader House. Built in 1826 by Joseph Parker Norris in what had been a garden of the Shippen-Wistar House, this four-story house (plus dormered attic) has particularly graceful fanlights over both doors that face 4th Street. It was bought in 1837 by Judge John Cadwalader.
on right is the Bouvier grave
Next we come to Old St. Mary's Church, founded in 1763. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral of the Diocese of Philadelphia (1810-38) and was enlarged in 1810 and renovated in 1963. Although St. Joseph's Church (on our Historic District tour) was founded first, the present building of St. Mary's is older than that of St. Joseph's. Washington, who certainly showed no favoritism when it came to attending services, worshiped here as well as at Christ Church and St. Peter's.
Along the north wall of its burial ground are found the graves of the early Bouviers. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' great-great grandfather Michel Bouvier (1792-1874), the first of the family to come from France, and his descendants all lie beneath the vault. Thomas FitzSimons, signer of the Constitution, member of the Continental Congress and Representative in the first three Congresses of the United States; Stephen Moylan, a general officer in the Revolution and aide-de-camp to Washington all lie in this old and historic burial ground. Here, too, is the grave of Commodore John Barry (1745-1803), "Father of the American Navy." A statue of Barry can be seen in Independence Square, and one of FitzSimons stands before the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on the Parkway.
"Hail, Columbia!" house
We now walk south toward Spruce Street and turn left. At 338 Spruce, on the south side of the street, is the house where Joseph Hopkinson, jurist and son of Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived when, on April 22, 1798, he composed "Hail, Columbia!"
Adjoining it at 336 is the Wharton House. It and others stand on what was once known as "Old Almshouse Square" (3rd to 4th, Spruce to Pine). The present house was built in 1790 by Samuel Pancoast, a member of the Carpenters' Company. In 1800 the house was occupied by Anthony Morris who, in 1813, represented the United States at the Court of Spain and conducted the diplomatic negotiations which resulted in the purchase of Florida from Spain. At his death in 1860, aged 95, he was the last survivor of the wedding party of President James Madison and Dolley Payne Todd. Later residents were William and Deborah Wharton, whose son Joseph (1826-1909) founded the Wharton School of finance at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most important of its kind in the world. The Wharton House is now the rectory of Christ Church.
The next stop is one of the finest Georgian houses in the United States, the Powel House at 244 South 3rd Street. Built in 1765, it was purchased in 1768 by Samuel Powel, the last Colonial mayor of Philadelphia and the first mayor after the Revolution. Samuel's wife Elizabeth was a sister of Thomas Willing, who with his partner Robert Morris helped finance the Revolution. Powel, like so many other Philadelphians, died of the yellow fever in 1793, but the family remained in the house for over forty years. On the second floor the ballroom dominates, and it was here that Washington, Adams, Franklin, Lafayette and other worthies were entertained by Mrs. Powel, one of the most brilliant hostesses of her time. John Adams wrote: "... a most sinful feast again! Everything which could delight the eye or allure the taste; curds and creams, jellies, sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty sorts of tarts, fools, trifles, whipped sillibub, &c." The ballroom with its magnificent Waterford chandelier, circa 1790, contains a pianoforte from 1795 in addition to a French harp and an arm harp.
Immediately next to the Powel House is 242 South 3rd Street, a home that is not open to the public. On this site, however, was the home (1766-1771) of John Penn (1729-95), the last Colonial governor of Pennsylvania, a son of Richard Penn and grandson of William Penn. It was also the home from 1771 to 1810 of Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), the last Colonial Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, whose great house Cliveden was the focal point of the Battle of Germantown. From 1778 to 1780 it was the home of Juan de Miralles (1715-80), the first Spanish diplomatic representative to the United States. He died while visiting Washington at his wartime Morristown headquarters. The house then became the residence of his successor, Francisco Rondon, who lent it to Washington during the winter of 1781-82. So, at one time the Washingtons and the Powels were next-door neighbors. No wonder they became such fast friends in later life.
Just up the street is St. Paul's Episcopal Church, built in 1761. It is no longer used as a church but as headquarters for the Episcopal Community Services of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. When St. Paul's was built it was the third Protestant Episcopal Church in the city of Philadelphia. In the burial ground is the grave of Edwin Forrest (1806-72), the great tragedian known for his "Spartacus" and other dramatic roles. His feud with William Macready, the English actor, caused the 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York, in which 22 people were killed and another 36 wounded. The Forrest Theatre on Walnut Street is named in his honor.
Return to Spruce Street and turning left, we proceed to 217 and find the Davis-Lenox House. The sign on front tells us:
"Built in 1759 by James Davis house carpenter & officer of the Carpenters' Company. Added to in 1784 by Major David Lenox, Continental soldier, 44th member First City Troop, President of the Bank of the U.S., U.S. Marshal for the District of Pennsylvania, Representative of the U.S. to the Court of St. James's."
It is now a private residence, as are all the others in this area. This block is one of the loveliest in Society Hill for it has a mixture of sizes and styles of houses. Some, like the Davis-Lenox House and its neighbors on each side, were homes of the wealthy establishment (as was the Powel House). Others, such as those opposite, which are smaller and more modest, were owned by men and women of substance if not great means.
Pei in the Sky
Near the entrance to the three skyscraper apartment buildings designed by I.M. Pei, the Society Hill Towers, are two magnificent town houses that have been restored. One of them, the Abercrombie House at 270 South 2nd Street, was built in 1759 for a Scottish sea captain. Like so many of the houses in the area it fell into disrepair — it was used a warehouses for a time — but like so many Society Hill houses was lovingly restored.
At 125-127 Spruce Street is A Man Full of Trouble, the only tavern remaining from Colonial Philadelphia. It was built about 1759 on the banks of Little Dock Creek, (long since filled in and lost to view), in an area in which mariners, cordwainers and dockhands swarmed — and patronized this inn.
Because it was a tavern with the intimacy and scale of an inn, A Man Full of Trouble had a different appeal from the grand houses we have visited. The rooms are low ceilinged and the tavern room itself, for eating and drinking, is warm and inviting. Superb English Delft china, old pewter and a set of Windsor chairs owned by the first Chief Justice, John Jay, are all on view. Pipe smokers dropped money in an "Honesty Box" — which demanded a penny and then the honesty of the pipe smoker who would take only one pipeful of tobacco.
When the cellar, which contained the kitchen, was excavated, archaeologists found glass, china and other artifacts which were been pieced together and exhibited. The maids and the hired men slept on cots down here — very 18th-century communal. There are musket slots on the landings between the first and second floors for defending the tavern against attack, and in the attic a room where men off the ships often slept four in a bed. It may be difficult to imagine how it was done, but sailors were smaller in stature then or, maybe, just less demanding.
What does a historic site look like before reconstruction? Tun Tavern, a few steps east, today stands as an example. In 1775, the Continental Marine Corps was organized here. The first commandant of the Marines was a young Philadelphian, Samuel Nicholas. There is a tribute to the founding of the Marines at New Hall (see Historic District tour).
Return to the corner of Second and Spruce. Walk south toward the Head House. Before reaching Pine Street, however, turn right on Delancey and stroll the long block to 3rd Street, passing Philip Street and American Street on the north side. Take one side of the street going and the other side returning. Small houses with their appealing pent eaves above the first floor and Drinker's Court (1765) — a tiny and charming hideaway — are to be seen on this one street. Return to 2nd Street.
The Head House, Georgian in design and built in 1803 for meetings of the commissioners, fire companies and citizens, dominates the market arcades behind. Sometime in the middle of the 18th century a pair of market houses was built in the center of 2nd Street. They were later enlarged and had grown to some 440 feet by 1811. These were probably the oldest public market houses in the country before they were torn down and the market itself, used by craftsmen today to display their wares, can probably claim the distinction of being the oldest American market still in continual use.
Proceed to the northwest corner of 3rd and Pine Streets which was for a time was the home of Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746-1817), the Polish patriot who fought for the American cause during the Revolution. One of his first duties upon arrival was helping fortify the city against the British fleet's expected attack. The house has a double history for it was also the birthplace of Colonel John Nixon (1733-1808), who first read the Declaration of Independence publicly in the State House Yard on July 8, 1776. An ancestor of President Nixon, he was a soldier in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution in addition to being a sheriff in Philadelphia.
Diagonally across the street stands St. Peter's Church, one of the landmarks of Society Hill, and one of Philadelphia's most beautiful and beloved churches. The interior, which was first used for services in 1761, is plainer and simpler than that of Christ Church (walk 2), but its double-ended style with the altar at the east end and the pulpit at the west is unusual. The land for the church was given by Thomas and Richard Penn, proprietors of the Colony, no longer Quakers but Episcopalians.
The land St. Peter's and the burying ground cover is the largest open tract in this part of the city, and it provides a beautiful vista for the houses opposite. Toward the 4th Street end, the largest monument in the cemetery is one to the naval hero Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), who was killed in a duel. Here are also the graves of Benjamin Chew, jurist and owner of Cliveden as mentioned above; Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States; Charles Willson Peale, the portrait painter and father of a family of distinguished painters; Dr. William Shippen, whose home was noted on this walk; John Nixon who we also noted on the walk; and seven Indian chiefs carried off by smallpox in 1793.
Society Hill is blessed in the number of old churches which have survived, and at 4th and Pine there is another, the Third Street Presbyterian Church, more familiarly known as Old Pine. Although built in 1766, the church was altered twice (in 1837 and 1857) and a Greek Revival front was added. However, its handsome Corinthian columns give an air of elegance to the old neighborhood. Old Pine has as many historical connotations as any building in the city. Know as "The Church of the Patriots," 60 men from the congregation were members of the Continental Army, 35 of whom were commissioned officers. General John Steele, a parishioner, was personal aide-de-camp to Washington and served as field officer at Yorktown on the day Cornwallis surrendered. During the Revolution the British used the church as a hospital and later, when they had used the last of the pews and woodwork for firewood, the church was commandeered as a stable by the dragoons.
The haunting graveyard on the church ground also has a fascinating history to tell. One hundred Hessians are buried in a common grave along the east wall of the church. William Hurry (1721-81), who some historians believe rang the Liberty Bell at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, is buried here. On a more modern note, maestro Eugene Ormandy, renowned conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is also interred at Old Pine.
We can see the Presbyterian Historical Society, 425 Lombard Street, at the south side of the burying ground. Walk to 5th and Pine Streets, turn left and walk one block to reach the entrance. Founded in 1852, the society contains a library of over 200,000 published titles, 20,000,000 manuscripts, including 13,000 bound church records. There is also a museum which contains portraits by such well-known painters as Rembrandt Peale and John Neagle, letters, pewter plate, ephemera, communion tokens, and a tall clock which belonged to John Witherspoon (1723-94), the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was also the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) from 1768 to 1794. His statement during the debate over whether or not the time was propitious for Independence at the Second Continental Congress has come ringing down through the years. John Dickinson, who was advocating moderation until the time was ripe, provoked Witherspoon to shout: "In my judgment, sir, we are not only ripe but rotting."
Return to Old Pine where opposite we enter Lawrence Street, which contains old and new houses and leads, naturally enough, to Lawrence Court. Leaving Lawrence Court, we pass by the steel sculpture of kangaroos — a comic touch and just right here.
Proceed to the Society Hill Synagogue, built in 1829 as the Spruce Street First Baptist Church. For a time it was a Rumanian Synagogue, and it now is home to a Conservative congregation. It has the distinction of having been designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect responsible for the Capitol dome, as well as the Senate and House wings of the Capitol building.
We end our tour on 4th Street by visiting one of the most magnificent houses in America. It is the only free-standing house in Society Hill and a superb example of a Federal house restored with Federal furniture. From the moment we enter and hear the guide's friendly, "Welcome to Dr. Physick's House," we are spellbound. The house was built in 1786 by Henry Hill, the executor of Benjamin Franklin's will. It was purchased for Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837) by his sister in 1790. The good doctor lived in the house from 1815 until his death, and his descendants lived here until 1941. Napoleon's influence is everywhere, from the rugs to the swan motif in the wallpaper.
The Society of Cincinnatus, one of the oldest and most distinguished in the United States, has its headquarters in the upstairs parlor. A room honoring Dr. Physick and his many surgical inventions is also on the second floor. The final stop is a bedroom, and here, besides the spectacular bed, are several fine Chippendale pieces.