Carpenters' Hall was just completed when in September 1774 it found itself host to the First Continental Congress which met to oppose British rule.
When Benjamin Franklin needed an architect to build his house, he turned to master builder Robert Smith of the Carpenters' Company. Smith not only belonged to the Carpenters' Company — he designed their headquarters, Carpenters' Hall. Founded in Philadelphia in 1724, the Carpenters' Company was organized to share information about the art of building, determine the value of completed work, hone architectural skills, and help indigent craftsmen. Simulating the trade guilds of 18th century England, the Carpenters' Company has held regular meetings for over 275 years, making it the oldest trade guild in the country.
Carpenters of the Colonial Era were architects as well as builders. The Company published a book of rules and prices and architectural designs called Articles and Rules in 1786. Only members of the Carpenters' Company were allowed to see the book. If a Carpenter showed it to an outsider, he would face expulsion. It's been said that Thomas Jefferson, the ex-President, was rebuffed in his attempt to obtain a copy of the book in 1817.
Located in the hub of colonial and capital Philadelphia, the Carpenters often found themselves in the center of political activity. This building housed the seven-week session of the First Continental Congress that met in 1774. Why, one might ask, did they not meet at the State House (Independence Hall) just a block away? The State House was perceived to be a hive of Tory sympathizers. In fact, some members of the Royalist press even suggested that the necks of the Revolutionary insurgents "might be inconveniently lengthened" if they did not desist in their activities.
Carpenters' Hall also served as the headquarters of the First Bank of the United States in 1791. Others to occupy the venerable rooms include: the Bank of the State of Pennsylvania, United States Custom House, Franklin Institute, Society of Friends, the United States Law Office, the Apprentice's Free Library, the Second Bank of the United States, and the Philadelphia Auction Market.
Although pleased with their success in renting space in their building, they were being squeezed out, so they built New Hall next door for their needs. However, no sooner was it completed than Secretary of War Henry Knox moved himself and his staff to the new building.
Architecturally, the building is in the form of a Greek cross. The pedimented doorway with Doric detail is gracious and welcoming. Three Palladian windows line the second floor under which are stone balustrades. The belt course (band separating the floors) is unusual in that it is outlined in wood instead of brick. At one time the gable over the windows contained the words "The Company Constituted 1724." In between the words "company" and "constituted" was the Carpenter's escutcheon. Underneath that read "Carpenters' Hall" in large letters.
Inside the Hall eight Windsor chairs used by members of the First Continental Congress are on display. Also displayed are early carpentry tools. Don't miss an opportunity to see a remarkable confluence of history and architecture.In attendance at the First Continental Congress here were George Washington and John Adams and the more well-known (at the time) Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. (Benjamin Franklin was in England at the time.)
The Convention adjourned on October 26, 1774, resolving that another Congress would be held in Philadelphia in May, "unless the redress of grievances, which we have desired, be obtained before that time."
Here, Patrick Henry said, "I am not a Virginian, but an American." A few months after the close of the Convention, Henry said, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" in a speech to the Virginia Convention back in Richmond.
Even Former President Thomas Jefferson was not permitted to see the Carpenters' book of rules and prices.
In 1857, the Carpenters' Company chose to restore and preserve this building as a historic landmark.
In 1955, the Independence Hall National Historical Park was making plans to restore and rebuild the area around Carpenters' Hall. Excavations uncovered a pornographic pipe tamper (used by 18th century smokers).
Location: Carpenters' Court between Third and Fourth Streets on Chestnut Street (Map)
Architect: Robert Smith
Commissioned by: Carpenters' Company
Tourism information: March to Dec Tu-Su 10-4; Jan and Feb We-Su 10-4. 215-925-0167
Facilities: Information, bookstore, outdoor benches
Official website: www.carpentershall.org Cell phone tour: 267-519-4295, then press number 24