Merchants’ Exchange Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Merchants’ Exchange Building, seen from the corner of Walnut and South Third Streets in Philadelphia in 1898. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, John C. Bullock Lantern Slide Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The Merchants’ Exchange Building is an important architectural landmark in Philadelphia, and it is also significant for having been the financial center of the city for many years. It was completed in 1834 as the first permanent home of what would become the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. Prior to this time, brokers and merchants met in a variety of coffee houses and taverns. However, by 1831 the city’s business leaders had recognized the need for a permanent, central location for a stock exchange, and began planning such a building.

The Exchange was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who was heavily inspired by classical Greek architecture. The shape of the lot also contributed to the building’s design; although most of Philadelphia features a rectangular street grid, the Exchange was built on a triangular lot that was created by the diagonally-running Dock Street. As a result, the two main facades of the building are very different. Here at the west end of the building on Third Street, it has a fairly standard Greek Revival exterior, with Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. However, on the east side of the building, facing Dock Street, Strickland designed an elaborate semi-circular columned facade that was topped by a tower. This tower, which is partially visible in the upper right corner of the 2019 photo, was inspired by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, which dates back to the fourth century B. C.

The cornerstone of the building was laid on February 22, 1832, on the one hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s birth. It was completed two years later, opening to the public in March 1834. A contemporary article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, republished from Bicknell’s Reporter, provides the following description:

It is built entirely of marble— occupies ninety-five feet front on Third street, and one hundred and fifty feet on Walnut. The basement story is fifteen feet high, and has twelve doorways on the Third Street front and flanks. The largest room in the lower floor, which is 74 by 36 feet, is occupied as the Philadelphia Post Office, at the west end of which is a hall or passage, designed for the shelter of persons while receiving or delivering letters. Beyond this hall to the west, and fronting Third street, is a large and commodious room, which has been fitted up as a Coffee Room, is now in the occupancy of Mr. J. Kerrison, a gentleman every way qualified to conduct a respectable establishment of the kind. South of the Post Office and the Coffee Room, is a large passage which runs from Dock to Third street, and further south again, a number of offices; which are to be occupied generally as Exchange and Insurance Offices. They open upon Walnut and Dock streets. No. 2 of this range will be occupied by the proprietor of this paper, as a Stock, Exchange and Publication Office.

Proceeding up stairs, the large Exchange Room, capable of containing several thousand persons, first arrests attention. It occupies an area of 83 superficial feet, fronts east, and extends across the whole building. The reading Room is oa [sic] the second floor, immediately over the Post Office, and is nearly of equal capacity. It is fitted up in the most appropriate manner, and is under the charge of Joseph M. Sanderson, Esq. assisted by Mr. J. Coffee. Both gentlemen are well know to our citizens, and are alike respected for urbanity of manner, intelligence, and attention to the duties entrusted to their care. Both have for several years been connected with the Merchants’ Coffee House of this city, Mr. Sanderson as Principal and Lessee of that establishment, and nothing can more fully show the estimation in which he is held by the Merchants than the fact of his unanimous election to the New Exchange.

The attic story is of the same height as the basement, 15 feet, contains six large rooms; the roof is of copper, and the ornaments on the semicircular portion over the front colonnade are very beautiful.

The building went on to serve as the city’s stock exchange for more than 40 years, in addition to housing other tenants such as the post office. However, in 1876 the stock exchange moved to the Girard Bank, located less than a hundred yards north of the Merchants’ Exchange on the opposite side of Third Street. This building was the home of the stock exchange until 1888, when it relocated to the Drexel Building a few blocks away. In a somewhat surprising move, though, the stock exchange then returned here to the Merchants’ Exchange at the turn of the 20th century, shortly after the first photo was taken. It remained here until 1913, when it moved into a new building at 1411 Walnut Street, near the corner of Market Street.

The Merchants’ Exchange Building was ultimately acquired by the National Park Service as part of the Independence National Historical Park. Although many other historic buildings within the park’s boundaries were demolished during this time, this building was preserved and restored, and it is now used as the park headquarters. It stands as the only surviving building in this scene from the first photo, and in 2001 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historical and architectural significance.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (3)

The south side of Independence Hall, seen from Independence Square around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

This view is similar to the one in a previous post, but this one shows the scene horizontally from a little further back, revealing more of the surrounding buildings near Independence Hall. As discussed in that post and another one, Independence Hall was the site of some of the country’s most important events in the years during and immediately after the American Revolution.

Independence Hall was completed in 1753 as the meeting place of the Pennsylvania colonial legislature, but at the start of the American Revolution it took on a second role as the de facto national capitol. The Second Continental Congress convened here on May 10, 1775, less than a month after the start of the war. The delegates met in the Assembly Room on the first floor of the building, which is located directly to the right of the tower in this scene. The building is most famous for the fact that the Declaration of Independence was voted on and signed here during the summer of 1776, but the building continued to be used by the Continental Congress throughout the Revolution, aside from two interruptions during British occupations of Philadelphia.

Congress finally left Philadelphia in June 1783, after a mob of about 400 soldiers descended upon the building, demanding payment for their wartime service. The state of Pennsylvania refused to deploy its militia to protect Congress, so the delegates left the city on June 21, and reconvened nine days later at Nassau Hall in Princeton, which became the first of several temporary national capitols over the next two years. Independence Hall would never again serve as the federal capitol building, but it nonetheless played another important role in 1787, when delegates from 12 of the 13 states met here for the Constitutional Convention. The result of this four-month convention was the current United States Constitution, which was signed here on September 17, 1787.

In the meantime, Independence Hall continued to serve as the seat of the state government. The federal government also returned to Philadelphia, although not to Independence Hall. Instead, two newer and smaller buildings were constructed, flanking Independence Hall. On the west side, barely visible on the extreme left side of the photos, is Congress Hall. This was the national capitol building from 1790 until 1800, with the House of Representatives occupying the large chamber on the first floor, and the Senate in a smaller chamber on the upper floor. On the opposite side of Independence Hall, on the extreme right side of the photos, is the Old City Hall. On the exterior, it is essentially identical to Congress Hall, and it was originally built to house the city government. However, during the 1790s it was also occupied by the Supreme Court, which had its courtroom on the ground floor.

The state government ultimately left Philadelphia in 1799 and moved to a more central location in Lancaster. Then, a year later, the federal government moved to Washington D.C., despite the best efforts by Philadelphians to retain the city’s status as the capital. No longer needed for governmental purposes, Independence Hall was threatened by demolition during the early 19th century. By this point the original wooden steeple was already gone, having been removed in 1781 and replaced by a low roof. Then, in 1812 the original wings on either side of Independence Hall were demolished, although the rest of the building was spared a similar fate after the city purchased it from the state in 1816.

It often takes many years before the significance of historic buildings is recognized, and in many cases this comes too late. For Independence Hall, though, it seems that its significance was widely understood by the 1820s. It was around this time that it came to be known as Independence Hall, rather than as the State House, and in 1825 the public square here in the foreground was formally named Independence Square. Three years later, a new steeple was constructed based on the plans of the original one, and it still stands atop the tower today.

By the time the first photo was taken around 1905, this scene had undergone further changes. Most significantly, the buildings that had replaced the old wings in 1812 were demolished in 1898, and new wings were constructed as replicas of the originals. Another change would come two years after the photo was taken, when the statue of Commodore John Barry was installed here in Independence Square, as shown in the 2019 photo.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, Independence Hall still looks essentially the same. Both Congress Hall and the Old City Hall have also been preserved, and all three of these buildings are now part of the Independence National Historical Park. However, one notable difference in this scene from the first photo is the row of buildings beyond Independence Hall on the other side of Chestnut Street. All of these buildings, along with two more entire blocks further to the north, were demolished in the mid-20th century in an effort to improve the aesthetics of the area surrounding Independence Hall. However, in an example of historic buildings not being recognized until they are gone, the project included the removal of the remnants of the old President’s House, where George Washington and John Adams had lived during the 1790s. This site, at the corner of Sixth and Market Streets, is now marked by a partial reconstruction of some of the house’s architectural elements.