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The Seat of Federal Government

As the seat of the federal government, Philadelphia consolidated its position as the financial, as well as the political, capital of the United States. Toward the end of the decade new landmarks proclaimed the city's role as a banking center. The largest was the First Bank of the United States, with its colossal marble portico, on Third Street south of Chestnut, on the site of what had been the terraced garden of a house called Clarke Hall. Smaller, but perhaps even more imposing, was the Bank of Pennsylvania, erected on Second Street just north of the City Tavern in 1799. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it was a classical building of great elegance. Twin porticos, each with six Ionic columns, fronted it on the east and west, and its domed banking room was expressed on the exterior, crowned by a glazed lantern.

The atmosphere of Philadelphia on the eve of a new century is lovingly captured in the series of watercolors and prints executed by William and Thomas Birch between 1798 and 1800. The renderings are somewhat idealized; nevertheless, the streetscapes are reasonably accurate. The straight streets are lined with decorous brick buildings, picked out with restrained light-colored trim of wood or stone. At intervals a more imposing building breaks the rows: the First Bank of the United States and the Bank of Pennsylvania; the new theater at the northwest corner of Chestnut and Sixth Streets; and, on Market Street, the colonnaded portico of the new Presbyterian church and Cooke's Building at the corner of Third Street, with its fanlit shop windows and plethora of Palladian openings on the upper floors. Despite its elegance, Cooke's overlooks the more earthy scene of the Market Shambles, where freshly butchered meat hangs on hooks in open stalls and Philadelphia's housewives shop for produce brought from the country. The streets pulse with life. Farmers' wagons in from the country, gentlemen's carriages, and troops of cavalry clop along the cobbled way. There are barrowmen and vendors; shoppers and entertainers. Ladies and gentlemen promenade, and groups of Indians see the sights. Dogs and children frolic, while their elders go about their work. It is a cosmopolitan scene, and one in which activity of every sort is packed within a narrow compass.



©1995-2014 by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, PA founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as ushistory.org.; online since July 4, 1995.
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