Supreme Court Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court Room at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The room in 2018:

The ground floor of Independence Hall – originally known as the Pennsylvania State House – consists of two large rooms. On the east side is the more famous Assembly Room, where the colonial legislature and Continental Congress met, and where the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution were signed. On the opposite side of the building is this room, which was originally built as the courtroom for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The two rooms are separated by a central hall, but, unlike the Assembly Room, the courtroom does not have any doors separating it from the hall. Instead, there are three large arches between the hall and courtroom, highlighting the importance of public judicial proceedings.

The Supreme Court met here throughout the 1700s. It originally consisted of three justices, although in 1767 its size was increased to four. During this time, probably its most prominent jurist was Thomas McKean, who served as Chief Justice from 1777 until 1799, when he was elected governor. Prior to his time on the bench, he represented Delaware in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776, and 1777 to 1783, serving as the president of Congress in 1783. He was also a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and he briefly served as president of Delaware in 1777. Another important member of the Supreme Court was John Morton, who served as an associate justice from 1774 until his death in 1777. He was simultaneously a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence, and he was also the chairman of the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation.

This building would continue to be used by the state government until 1799, when Philadelphia lost its status as the capital city to Lancaster. The Supreme Court subsequently relocated there, vacating its old quarters here in Independence Hall. The building was nearly demolished in the early 19th century, but it was instead purchased by the city of Philadelphia and preserved. By the 1870s, the Supreme Court room was in use as a museum, housing paintings and relics from the American Revolution. The room itself had also undergone some changes, including the arches, which had been closed since 1789 and separated from the central hall by a set of double doors.

The Supreme Court room was ultimately restored in the late 1890s, as shown by the first photo. However, the room was not furnished at the time, and its sparse decorations consisted of just a statue and several paintings. The paintings appear to all depict former justices, including William Bradford on the far left, Thomas Smith third to the right, and Thomas McKean on the wall in the center. The room would later undergo another major renovation in the 1960s, bringing it to its present-day appearance. As a result, it looks far more like a courtroom today than it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and the room is, along with the Assembly Room, one of the two major stops on the public tours of Independence Hall.

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Liberty Bell, at the base of the tower in Independence Hall, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018, without the Liberty Bell:

Today, the Liberty Bell is one of the most recognizable symbols of American independence and freedom, perhaps only matched by the American flag and the bald eagle. However, this would have seemed a rather implausible outcome for mid-18th century observers, who would have seen it as a poorly-made English import that barely served its purpose as a bell. The original bell arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, and it was to be installed in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), which was then under construction. The first time that it was rung, though, the bell cracked, and in 1753 it was melted down and re-cast by local foundry owners John Pass and John Stow. However, this second bell had a poor sound, so Pass and Stowe again re-cast it, and in 1753 it was hung in the steeple of the State House.

In the early years of the Liberty Bell’s history, Pennsylvania was still a British colony, and the Declaration of Independence was still several decades away. As such, Philadelphians would not have associated the bell with the concept of liberty, although it bore a rather prophetic inscription taken from Leviticus 25:10, which reads, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Instead, the fame of the Liberty Bell comes from the fact that it sat in the steeple of the State House when the Second Continental Congress declared independence in 1776. Despite popular belief,though, this bell did not ring on July 4 to mark the occasion, as the Declaration of Independence was not made public for another four days. The bell likely would have been one of many that were rung in Philadelphia on July 8 in order to celebrate the Declaration, although there is no direct evidence of this.

The Liberty Bell remained in its perch above the building until 1777, when retreating American forces took it down and removed it from the city, in order to prevent the British from seizing it and melting it down for munitions. The bell returned to Philadelphia a year later, although it was not re-installed in the steeple because of the deteriorated condition of the structure. It was put into storage for the next few years, and in 1781 the old steeple was demolished. Then, in 1785, the bell was installed in the truncated brick tower, beneath where the steeple had been.

It was at some point in the early 19th century, probably between 1817 and 1846, that the Liberty Bell cracked again, giving the bell its distinctive present-day appearance. Also during this time, Independence Hall underwent a renovation, with a new steeple built atop the tower in 1828. As part of this project, the city of Philadelphia also ordered a new bell to replace the old Liberty Bell. John Wilbank received the contract to make the new one, and part of his payment was the Liberty Bell itself, which had a scrap value of $400. However, the cost of removing it would have exceeded this amount, so he let the city keep the bell, thus preventing the historic relic from being melted down for scrap.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Liberty Bell was becoming widely recognized for its historic significance. In 1848, it was moved to the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been signed, and it would remain on display there for the next 50 years. Then, in 1898, it was moved to a new location in the building, at the base of the tower, as shown in the first photo. However, during this time the Liberty Bell also went on tour, traveling by rail to various locations around the country. The last of these occurred in 1915, and the practice was subsequently ended, in part because of the many souvenir hunters who chipped off pieces of the bell during these traveling exhibitions.

Aside from these trips, the Liberty Bell was on display here in the tower hall throughout much of the 20th century. As the bell’s fame continued to grow, though, this space became inadequate for the increasing number of visitors who came here. In 1976, in anticipation of the crowds that would come to celebrate America’s bicentennial, it was relocated to the Liberty Bell Pavilion, which was constructed on the Independence Mall on the other side of Chestnut Street, opposite Independence Hall. It remained there for the next 27 years, but in 2003 it moved again, to the new, larger Liberty Bell Center. The bell is still on display there now, with the view of Independence Hall as its backdrop, and it draws an estimated one million visitors each year.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Independence Hall, seen from the north side across Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Independence Hall in 2019:

Independence Hall is one of the most important historic sites in the country, having been the place where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed. It served as the de facto capitol building of the United States from 1775 until 1783, but the building predates the American Revolution by several decades. Construction had begun in 1732, coincidentally the same year as George Washington’s birth, although it would be another 21 years before it was finally completed in 1753 as Pennsylvania’s first state house. It was built of brick, with Georgian-style architecture, and it featured the main building in the center, with a clock tower on the south side of it and wings to the east and west.

The Pennsylvania State House, as it was then known, was used by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly in the years leading up to the American Revolution, but starting in 1775 it was also put to use as the meeting place of the Second Continental Congress, which convened here on May 10 of that year. The war had begun less than a month earlier, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and one of the early actions taken by the Congress was to create a Continental Army and appoint one of its own members, George Washington, to become commander. However, the Congress also attempted to bring about a reconciliation with Britain, sending the Olive Branch Petition to King George III in July.

Support for independence was by no means universal among the delegates of the Second Continental Congress, and it would take more than a year of war, along with the crown’s rejection of their peace overtures, before they finally agreed to declare independence. The vote on the resolution occurred here on July 2, 1776, and it passed without opposition. Writing to his wife Abigail a day later, John Adams predicted:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Adams would prove correct about everything except for the date. Although the resolution passed on July 2, the actual text of the Declaration was not approved until two days later, so July 4 was ultimately recognized as Independence Day. However, John Trumbull’s famous painting notwithstanding, the document does not appear to have been actually signed on July 4. Historians generally identify August 2 as the date when most delegates signed, although others would add their signatures in the subsequent months, including New Hampshire’s Matthew Thornton, who did not arrive in Philadelphia until November.

The Declaration of Independence asserted the new country’s sovereignty, although it would take another seven years of war before this fact was recognized by the British. Throughout this time, the Continental Congress continued to meet here in Independence Hall, although its stay was interrupted by two British occupations of Philadelphia. Congress evacuated the city in December 1776, returned in March 1777, and left again in September. It would not return here again until July 1778, and during these interim periods it met in Baltimore, Lancaster, and York. It was during its stay in York that the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which would become the first national constitution. However, the Articles required unanimous support, and it did not go into effect until the last state, Maryland, signed the document here in Independence Hall in 1781.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government consisted of a unicameral legislature that is now usually referred to as the Congress of the Confederation. It was the successor to the Continental Congress, and it met here for the next two years. However, in June 1783 Congress was again compelled to evacuate Philadelphia. This time, though, it was not in the face of an invading British army, but rather an angry mob of about 400 American soldiers who were demanding payment for their wartime service. Congress had asked for assistance from the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which also met here in this building, but the council refused to call the state’s militia to suppress the riot. As a result, Congress left here on June 21, and reconvened nine days later at Nassau Hall in Princeton.

The Congress of the Confederation would never return to Philadelphia, and instead it met variously in Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York City over the next six years. However, Independence Hall did play one more important role in American government in 1787, when it became the meeting place for the Constitutional Convention. By this point, it had become clear that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate for effectively governing the country, so delegates from 12 states gathered here starting on May 25, with the stated purpose of “revising” the Articles.

It did not take the convention delegates long to realize that they needed to write a new constitution, as opposed to simply revising the existing one, although this prompted significant debate on issues such as how states should be represented in the legislature, and whether slaves should be counted toward a state’s population. The result was a constitution that was filled with compromises, creating a national government that was much stronger than the one under the Articles of Confederation, while at the same time reserving a significant amount of authority to the states. In all, the convention lasted just under four months, and the final document was signed here on September 17, 1787.

The Constitution went into effect in 1789, and a year later the new federal government returned to Philadelphia, where it would remain for the next 10 years before permanently relocating to Washington, D.C. However, instead of using Independence Hall, Congress met in a new building located immediately to the west of here, at the corner of Chestnut and 6th Streets. Around the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court moved into a matching building on the other side of Independence Hall, at the corner of 5th Street.

Philadelphia lost its role as the national capital in 1800, but a year earlier it had also lost the state capital, when the state government moved to Lancaster. This left Independence Hall without any governmental use, although during the early 19th century the second floor housed a natural history museum and portrait gallery that was run by artist Charles Willson Peale. The building’s exterior also changed during this time, starting with the removal of the original wooden steeple in 1781. It had become badly deteriorated by that point, and it was not immediately replaced; instead, the brick tower was topped with a low roof. Another major change came in 1812, when the original wings were demolished and replaced by new buildings along Chestnut Street.

Independence Hall itself also faced potential demolition, but this threat was averted when the city of Philadelphia purchased the property from the state in 1816. Over time, the building came to be known as Independence Hall, rather than the State House, and in 1825 the square on the south side was named Independence Square. Then, in 1828, the exterior was restored with the addition of a new steeple, which was designed by architect William Strickland. It was based on the design of the original one, but it had some differences, including the addition of a clock. Unlike its predecessor, which lasted less than 30 years before rotting away, Strickland’s steeple is still standing atop the tower nearly two centuries later.

During the 19th century, the building came to be recognized as a major symbol of the American Revolution, and over the years both it and the surrounding grounds were the site of countless patriotic events and public demonstrations. Perhaps the first came in 1824, when the Marquis de Lafayette was received here during his farewell tour of America, but subsequent speakers and demonstrators included Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and various labor unions, all of whom sought to connect their connect their causes to the ideals that the Founding Fathers had expressed here.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the exterior of the building had undergone another change. The 1812 wings were demolished in 1898, and were replaced with replicas of the originals, including the arched brick arcades that connected the wings to the main building. Another change to this scene came in 1869, when a marble statue of George Washington was installed here in front of Independence Hall. It was the work of sculptor Joseph A. Bailly, and it appears in the first photo. However, by the early 20th century it had begun to deteriorate, and in 1910 it was replaced with a bronze copy, which still stands here today.

More than a century after the first photo was taken, the statue remains the only significant change to this scene. Independence Hall remains well-preserved, and it stands as the focal point of the Independence National Historical Park, which was established in 1948. It has also been designated as a National Historic Landmark, and it is one of only 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. The building is open to the public for guided tours, and it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the northeast, with over 4 million visitors to the park each year.

Greenhouse and Slave Quarters, Mount Vernon, VA (2)

Another view of the greenhouse and slave quarters from the Upper Garden of Mount Vernon, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in the previous post, this building was constructed around 1793, as a combination of slave quarters and a greenhouse. The greenhouse was located in the middle, as seen on the left side of these photos, and there were barracks-style slave quarters on either side, with the women in the foreground, and the men in the distance on the other side of the greenhouse. Together, these quarters housed the majority of the slaves who lived on the mansion house farm of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

In December 1835, a fire started in a defective flue in the greenhouse. It destroyed the greenhouse and the slave quarters, and most of the exotic plants in the greenhouse were lost, either from the fire itself or from the cold December temperatures outside. The building would remain in ruins for many years, until it was finally restored in the 1890s, probably about 15 to 20 years before the first photo was taken.

The building underwent a second reconstruction between 1948 and 1951, restoring it to its late 18th century appearance. As a result, the present-day scene is actually more historically accurate than the first photo, showing how the slave quarters and greenhouse would have looked during Washington’s day. Otherwise, though, this scene has not changed dramatically since the first photo was taken. The formal garden now has fewer hedges than in the first photo, but other features remain today, including the boxwood parterre in the foreground.

Greenhouse and Slave Quarters, Mount Vernon, VA

The greenhouse and slave quarters, seen from the Upper Garden at Mount Vernon, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

At the time of his death in 1799, George Washington had 317 slaves who lived on the five farms that comprised the Mount Vernon estate. Of these, around 90 slaves lived at the mansion house, and most of them lived in barracks-style quarters here, adjacent to the flower garden. The building, which was completed around 1793, consisted of the women’s quarters on the left, the men’s quarters on the right, and a greenhouse in the center.

The building, which was euphemistically referred to as the servants’ quarters, stood here until 1835, when it was destroyed in a fire. This fire came at a time when the Washington family was struggling to pay the upkeep of the estate, though, and the building was left as a ruin for many years. Even after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the property in 1858, it would take more than three decades before it was restored.

Historian Benson J. Lossing, writing in his 1871 book The Home of Washington, provides the following description of the ruins:

The conservatory was never rebuilt nor the ruins removed. These, now overgrown with vines and shrubs, form a picturesque garden wall, but lose some of their attractiveness to the eye of taste, by the presence of two tall, perpendicular chimneys, which are seen above the shrubbery from every point of view in the garden. These broken walls, too, strike the visitor unpleasantly. They are at the modern carriage entrance to Mount Vernon, and are the first objects associated with Washington that meet the eye on approaching the mansion from the public road.

The greenhouse and slave quarters were ultimately rebuilt in the 1890s, as shown in the first photo, which was taken several decades later. The building subsequently underwent a second reconstruction between 1948 and 1951, restoring the greenhouse to its original appearance. This project was occurring during the same time that the White House was undergoing a major renovation of its own, and many of the bricks that were used to rebuild the greenhouse had been salvaged from the White House. Today, the greenhouse and slave quarters are among the many restored and reconstructed historic buildings on the Mount Vernon estate, and they bear a more historically accurate appearance than they did in the first photo a century ago.

Mount Vernon, Virginia

The Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, as seen from the west side, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The land that would become the Mount Vernon estate had been in the Washington family since 1674, when John Washington – an English immigrant and great-grandfather of the future president – acquired the property. It was subsequently owned by his son Lawrence, and then Lawrence’s daughter Mildred, before being purchased by Mildred’s brother Augustine Washington in 1726.

Augustine Washington was 31 years old at the time, and had a wife, Jane, and three children. However, Jane died only a few years later, and in 1731 he remarried to Mary Ball, with whom he had six more children. The oldest of these was George Washington, who was born in 1732 at Popes Creek, a plantation further south of here along the Potomac River. The Washington family lived there for several more years, but around 1734 Augustine constructed the earliest portion of the mansion house here at Mount Vernon, which was known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation at the time.

Around 1739, Augustine and his family moved to Fredericksburg, and left Little Hunting Creek to his oldest son, Lawrence. In 1743, Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, and he renamed the plantation Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. The couple had four children here, although none of them survived childhood, and both Lawrence and Anne also died young, in 1752 and 1761, respectively.

In his will, Lawrence left Mount Vernon to his wife for the rest of her life, with his brother George to inherit the property upon her death. In 1754, George Washington began leasing Mount Vernon from Anne, and in 1758 he expanded the original house, likely in preparation for his upcoming marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. The house had been built with only one story, along with a garret above it, but Washington added a full second story, with a garret on the third floor. Following the completion of this project, the house consisted of what is now the central portion of the building.

George Washington acquired the property outright when Anne died in 1761, and in 1774 he began the second major expansion, with two-story additions on either side of the house. The pediment was also added during this time, as was the iconic two-story portico on the east side of the house. The interior work would not be finished until 1787, but the exterior was completed in 1775, the same year that Washington left Mount Vernon to take command of the Continental Army. Washington himself is generally credited with designing the plans for the addition, thus adding architect to his lengthy list of accomplishments.

Although he would spend many years away from Mount Vernon during the American Revolution and during his presidency, the estate would be his home for the rest of his life, until his death here on December 14, 1799. Martha Washington died two and a half years later, and Washington’s nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, subsequently inherited Mount Vernon. After Bushrod’s death in 1829, his nephew, John Augustine Washington II, inherited it, followed by John’s son, John Augustine Washington III.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, though, the various generations of Washingtons struggled to maintain the property. As is often the case with landed aristocrats, they were land rich but cash poor, and Mount Vernon suffered neglect because of the cost of upkeep. Finally, in 1858, John Augustine Washington III sold the mansion and surrounding land to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization subsequently restored the property, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Mount Vernon opened for visitors in 1860, and it has remained a popular tourist attraction ever since. The first photo was taken some 50-60 years later, and it shows the view of the mansion from the west, looking across the bowling green. Today, hardly anything has changed in this scene. The property is still operated by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which remains an independent nonprofit organization, and it draws an estimated one million visitors each year. Because of its historical significance, Mount Vernon was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, making it one of the first sites in the country to receive this recognition.