Congress Hall and Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Congress Hall and Independence Hall, seen from the corner of Chestnut and Sixth Streets in Philadelphia, around 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These two photos show the south side of Chestnut Street, between Sixth and Fifth Streets. This block contains three historic 18th century government buildings, each of which played an important role in the early history of the United States. In the center of this scene is Independence Hall, Philadelphia’s most famous historic landmark, which served as the meeting place of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. It is flanked on either side by two nearly identical buildings, both of which were occupied by the federal government in the late 18th century. In the foreground, to the west of Independence Hall, is Congress Hall, and to the east is the Old City Hall, which once housed the United States Supreme Court.

Independence Hall was completed in 1753, and it was originally used as the colonial capitol building of Pennsylvania. However, because of Philadelphia’s central location relative to the northern and southern colonies, it took on a second role during the American Revolution. Aside from several short interruptions during British occupations, the Continental Congress met here from 1775 until 1783, and it was during this time that the delegates approved and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Congress left Philadelphia in 1783, but the building continued to be used by the state government. Then, during the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met here to draft and sign the United States Constitution, which was ratified a year later.

At the time of the convention, New York City was the national capital, but in 1790 the federal government returned to Philadelphia, which would serve as the capital city for ten years while Washington D.C. was being developed. Rather than sharing Independence Hall with the state government, the federal government moved into its own buildings here. Congress Hall, shown in the foreground of these two photos, became the capitol building, with a chamber on the first floor for the House of Representatives, and a smaller one upstairs for the Senate. However, the building is noticeably smaller and more modest than the adjacent Independence Hall, providing an interesting visual contrast between the perceived importance of the state and federal governments during the nation’s early years.

Congress Hall was overshadowed by Independence Hall, both physically and also in terms of its historical significance. Nevertheless, a number of important events occurred here at Congress Hall. George Washington was inaugurated here at the start of his second term, as was John Adams four years later, and the Bill of Rights was formally added to the Constitution here in 1791. It was also here that Congress passed many important bills that would shape the future of the country, including legislation that established the First Bank of the United States, the Post Office, and the Navy.

On the far side of Independence Hall, at the corner of Fifth Street, is the Old City Hall. Its exterior is nearly identical to Congress Hall, and it was completed in 1791. It served as Philadelphia’s city hall until 1854, but it was also occupied by the United States Supreme Court from 1791 until 1800. The court held its sessions on the first floor during this period, with the city council meeting on the second floor. The first case in the history of the court, West v. Barnes, was argued here on August 2, 1791, and the court issued a unanimous decision the following day. Overall, though, the Supreme Court had a relatively minor role in the federal government in these early years, and the court decided few significant cases here in Philadelphia.

Both the state and federal governments left Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century, with the state capital moving to Lancaster in 1799 and the national capital to Washington a year later. Independence Hall faced threats of demolition in the early 19th century, and the building’s original wings were razed and replaced with new buildings, which are partially visible in the first photo. However, the main part of Independence Hall was ultimately preserved, and by the time the first photo was taken in the late 1850s it had become a major symbol of the American Revolution.

In the meantime, City Hall was occupied by the municipal government until 1854, and for many years Congress Hall served as the county courthouse. Both of these buildings were restored around the turn of the 20th century, and Congress Hall was rededicated in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson. Around this same time, the 1812 wings of Independence Hall were replaced by replicas of the original wings. Since then, this scene has not changed very much in its appearance, and all three buildings are now part of the Independence National Historical Park, which was established in 1948.

Jones’ Hotel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Jones’ Hotel, on the south side of Chestnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets in Philadelphia, in December 1858. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo shows the Jones’ Hotel, which stood on the south side of Chestnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Street. The photo is part of a scrapbook that was compiled in the 1850s to document historic 18th and early 19th century buildings in Philadelphia. Most of the buildings in the scrapbook have long since been demolished, so images such as this one provide a rare glimpse of the city during the early years of photography. The original image, which is now in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia, also includes a caption, probably contemporary to the photo, that reads:

Yohe’s, late Jones’ Hotel. On the south side of Chestnut St., next to the Clymer mansion (afterward Geo. Harrison’s residence) between Sixth and Seventh St. The site, in the olden times, of the celebrated “Oeller’s hotel.”

As indicated by the caption, this was once the site of Oellers’s Hotel. It was one of the city’s leading hotels of the late 18th century, but it was destroyed by a fire on December 17, 1799. The site was subsequently redeveloped with houses, but in 1833 hotelier Catharine Yohe purchased two of these homes, demolished them, and constructed the right-hand side of the building in the first photo. It opened in December 1833, and according to a July 10, 1859 article in the Sunday Dispatch it was, at the time of its completion, the only purpose-built hotel building in the city. Its opening was widely announced in newspapers, including classified advertisements as well as news articles that may have been thinly-disguised advertisements. One such article, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 5, speaks of the hotel in glowing terms:

This elegant and commodious establishment is now opened for the reception of Travellers. A more beautiful situation could hardly have been chosen for the erection of a large Hotel—it stands on Chestnut Street—directly opposite the Philadelphia Arcade and Peale’s Museum—between Sixth and Seventh Streets. This extensive building contains numerous parlours, all beautifully furnished—upwards of 100 Bed chambers, admirably arranged for comfort and convenience in all seasons. The Bars are judiciously placed so as to prevent confusion, in directing servants. The Dining Room is perhaps the largest, and most beautifully arranged, of any in the United States—the whole furnished after the order of Modern Architecture, with Furniture to correspond. This extensive and valuable establishment is under the immediate direction of Mrs. Yohe, the owner. From the well known character and capacity of this Lady we may infer that hospitality, kindness and attention will be extended to all, who favour the North American Hotel with their patronage.

Catharine Yohe operated the hotel for the next six years, but in 1839 she sold it to John A. Jones. He subsequently expanded the hotel by purchasing the other two adjoining houses, demolishing them, and building the section of the hotel on the left side of the scene. He also changed the name of the hotel, and it became Jones’ Hotel, as shown above the door in the first photo Under his management, the hotel became the finest in the city during the mid-19th century. The 1859 Dispatch article described it as having been the “‘crack’ house of its time,” a term that meant something very different than it does now.

Jones retired in 1847 and sold the hotel to Noah Bridges and John West. They retained the name, likely because of the reputation that it carried, and the hotel continued to be successful into the mid-1850s. During this time, one of its notable guests was Jenny Lind, during her highly-publicized tour of the United States. She arrived in Philadelphia in October 1850, and her first performance in the city was across the street from here at the Chestnut Street Theatre. Her arrival was highly anticipated by the people of Philadelphia, to the point where Chestnut Street was crowded with people waiting to catch a glimpse of her. However, because of the dense crowds she had to enter via the back entrance on Samson Street. This upset the crowd, though, and they did not disperse until Lind acceded to their demands and appeared at the window waving a handkerchief.

The hotel changed ownership several more times during the 1850s, and by 1858 it had declined to the point where it was vacant, with the furniture sold at auction by order of the sheriff. It was subsequently renovated and reopened in 1859, but it does not appear to have remained in business for very long. Over the next few decades, the building saw several other uses, including as a theater and as the newspaper offices of the Philadelphia German Democrat. Despite these changes, though, an 1887 article in the New York Tribune reported that the room where Jenny Lind stayed has never been altered, and was at the time being used as the offices of W. H. Shaffer & Co. jewelers.

It seems unclear as to exactly when the old hotel building was demolished, but it was definitely gone by the early 1920s, when this entire block of Chestnut Street was cleared to build the new office building of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The newspaper went out of business only two decades later, but the massive 12-story building is still standing here today, as shown in the 2019 photo.

Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Chestnut Street Theatre on the north side of Chestnut Street, just west of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, on April 30, 1855. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, James McClees Philadelphia Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

During the colonial era, theater was not a significant part of American culture, particularly in the northern and middle colonies. In New England, the Puritans saw plays and acting as immoral, and here in Philadelphia the Quakers similarly disapproved, believing that going to theaters was a frivolous use of time and money. Some colonies, including Pennsylvania, even outlawed plays. However, this trend began to change after the American Revolution, and one of the first purpose-built theaters in the country was the Chestnut Street Theatre, which opened here in 1794. 

At the time, Philadelphia was the capital city of both the United States and Pennsylvania, and the theater was located in the midst of these governmental buildings. The national capitol, Congress Hall, was diagonally across the street from the theater, and just beyond Congress Hall was Independence Hall, the seat of the state government. The Supreme Court met in a building on the other side of Independence Hall, and a block to the north of the theater was the President’s House, home of George Washington and later John Adams.

The original Chestnut Street Theatre burned in 1820, but it was rebuilt two years later. This new building, which is shown here in the first photo, was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who was responsible for many important buildings in the city during the early 19th century. On the exterior, the theater featured classically-inspired elements such as the arched entryways on the ground level and the four columns on the upper floor. The columns were flanked by a pair of statues, representing Tragedy and Comedy, that were carved by sculptor William Rush. The interior of the theater featured three rows of boxes arranged in a semi-circle around the stage, and it could accommodate around 2,000 people. It was built with fire safety in mind, including large stairways and multiple exits with outward-swinging doors, and it was said that a full crowd could evacuate the building in under three minutes.

The theater opened on December 2, 1822, and the occasion was marked by the reading of a letter from poet Charles Sprague, followed by a performance of the comedy The School for Scandal. Several days later, the National Gazette reported on it, observing that it opened “to a crowded, brilliant and good humoured house. The spectators and the actors appeared to be in the best spirits and both performed their respective parts in the best manner.” The article went on to say that “Everything went on and off swimmingly and satisfactorily” and that “Several gentlemen who had been abroad, and some foreigners, were heard to say that the Theatre was the prettiest they had ever seen.”

The new Chestnut Street Theatre, which came to be known as “Old Drury,” remained a popular venue for plays and concerts throughout the first half of the 19th century. During this time, perhaps the most famous performer was Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer who toured America from 1850 to 1852. The tour was organized by P. T. Barnum, who used his showman skills to generate fanfare for her performances. She arrived in New York in September 1850, and a month later she came to Philadelphia, where her first performance in the city occurred here at the Chestnut Street Theatre on October 17. In order to meet the anticipated demand, the tickets were auctioned off. The first one sold for the astronomical price of $625, equivalent to around $20,000 today, but prices quickly dropped for the subsequent tickets. The second one sold for just $15, and before long they were selling for under $10. In the end, about 1,700 tickets were sold at the auction, at an average of $7 each.

The day after the concert, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an account of the event, including a description of the crowd inside the theater:

A more brilliant audience never assembled within its walls, and this is saying a great deal, for “Old Drury” ranked for many years as the very temple of taste, fashion, dramatic and musical triumph. The spectacle was, indeed, fairy-like. The splendid dresses, the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, the eager expectation depicted on every countenance, the brilliant gas-lights, and the whisperings and buzzings of many voices, served to produce an unwonted excitement; and thus, long before the hour for the commencement of the entertainment, the blood seemed to flow more rapidly through the veins, even of the most passionless.

The excitement of this event notwithstanding, by the 1850s the Chestnut Street Theatre was past its prime. Its location was no longer as desirable as it had once been, and the building was considered too small by this point. The first photo was taken on April 30, 1855, a day before its final performance, as indicated by the playbills at the main entrance, which indicate that it will be the “last night but one” for the old theater. That evening’s entertainment consisted of the burletta The Loan of a Lover, followed by the comedy Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady and the drama Sixteen String Jack. The leading performer was 21-year-old Philadelphia native Julia Daly, whose name appears prominently on the playbills. According to newspaper advertisements, admission started at 12.5 cents for the gallery. General admission was 25 cents, and reserved seats for 37.5 cents. Orchestra and private box seating was 50 cents, and the “Colored Gallery” was 25 cents.

Somewhat more ominously than the playbills, the first photo also includes several visible posters advertising for the public sale that would take place on May 2, the day after the final performance. The sale would include the theater’s scenery, wardrobe, machinery, and other items, along with building materials such as doors, windows, rafters, roofing, and even the marble facade. This included the four marble columns, which sold for $25 each.

The theater was demolished soon after the sale, and it was replaced by a commercial building. All of the other buildings in the first photo have since been demolished as well, and the site of the theater is now a bank, which was built in 1965. It was originally the First Pennsylvania Bank, but after a series of mergers it is now a Wells Fargo branch. Further in the distance, on the other side of Sixth Street, is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and just out of view on the far right is Congress Hall and Independence Hall.

Chestnut Street from Sixth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Looking east on Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, in June 1851. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo is a print made from a daguerreotype that was taken in June 1851, looking east along Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street. The photo shows a mix of brick commercial buildings, mostly ranging from three to five stories in height. They stood directly opposite Independence Hall, which is just out of view on the right side of the scene. Based on their architectural style, the buildings with the sloped roofs were likely older, probably from the early 19th century, while the ones with flat roofs were likely from around the 1840s.

In the foreground of the first photo, on the left side of the scene, is Hart’s Building, a five-story building constructed only a few years earlier in 1848 by publisher Abraham Hart. This building housed a number of commercial tenants. By late 1851 these included, on the first floor, a hat store, a bookstore, a draper and tailor, a music dealer, a Venetian blind manufacturer, another tailor, a shaving saloon, a cigar store, and a musical instrument manufacturer. The second floor housed a billiard saloon, along with Sattler’s Cosmorama, which appears to have been an art gallery of some sort. On the upper floors, the building housed several different businesses involved in the publishing industry, including wood engraver William Gihon, bookbinder John F. Ducomb, Butler’s copper plate printing, and Mears’s Stereotype Foundry.

Further down Chestnut Street, just to the right of Hart’s Building, was the law book publishing firm of T. & J. W. Johnson. Beyond it was the three-story Eagle Hotel, followed by a four-story building occupied by bookseller J. W. Moore. His bookstore was located on the first floor, and other tenants of the building included a restaurant and a boarding house. The only other building with legible signs in the first photo is the five-story building in the center of the scene. It has a large sign atop it that reads “China Hall,” and it was occupied by William J. Kerr, who sold china and other imported goods.

This scene was dramatically altered only months after the first photo was taken. In the early morning hours of December 27, 1851, a fire broke out in Hart’s Building, in the third floor drying room of Butler’s copper plate printing offices. Firefighting efforts were hampered by below-zero temperatures, which froze some of the water sources. Because of this, plus the amount of flammable materials stored inside it, the entire building was soon engulfed, and firefighters began trying to save the surrounding buildings.

In the end, Hart’s Building was a total loss, and was insured for only $10,000 of the estimated $100,000 that it would cost to replace it. The neighboring book publishing building was also completely destroyed, at a cost of about $50,000, and the Eagle Hotel likewise suffered heavy damage. The building beyond the Eagle Hotel was only minimally damaged, but the fire also spread across Sixth Street and damaged or destroyed several other properties. There were even fears that the fire might spread across Chestnut Street to Independence Hall, but the famous landmark ultimately escaped damage.

Even worse than the property loss, though, was the loss of life from the fire. Contemporary newspaper articles give different reports on the death toll, but there appear to have been at least five fatalities. The early accounts mentioned two unidentified African Americans who were killed by falling debris, along with a police officer named Johnson who was also killed in the fire. As workers sifted through the debris, though, they uncovered the bodies of William H. Haly and William Baker. Haly, a lawyer and former state legislator, was probably the most notable victim of the fire. However, his body was burned to the point where it was indistinguishable from Baker’s body, so the two men were buried together in the same coffin.

A number of other people were badly injured in the fire, including at least three other police officers and a fireman. One of the officers, Thomas Grant, was pulled from the wreckage while on fire, and was described as having been “bruised in a shocking manner.” Newspaper accounts gave little hope for his recovery, but it seems unclear as to whether he ultimately succumbed to his injuries.

The damaged area was rebuilt soon after the fire, and for the next century this block of Chestnut Street continued to feature a mix of low-rise commercial buildings. However, this all changed in the mid-20th century, as part of an urban renewal project to create Independence Mall, a three-block park area with Independence Hall at its southern end. As part of this, all of the buildings between Fifth and Sixth Streets were demolished, from Chestnut Street up to Race Street, with the sole exception of the Free Quaker Meeting House on Arch Street. This included all of the buildings that stood in this scene, although it seems as though few, if any, of the buildings from the 1851 photo were still standing by that point anyway.

Today, the Independence Mall is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and it remains mostly open parkland, with a few modern buildings running along the Sixth Street side. Here at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets, just out of view on the far left side of the scene, is the Liberty Bell Center, which houses the famous bell across the street from its original location at Independence Hall.

Library Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Library Hall, on Fifth Street near Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, in February 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The Library Company of Philadelphia was established in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as the first lending library in the present-day United States. At the time, free municipally-supported libraries were still more than a century in the future, but Franklin’s library functioned as a sort of quasi-public library, making books available to subscribing members. These types of subscription libraries would become common in America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Library Company of Philadelphia served as a model for many of these.

During its early years, the library did not have a permanent home. Instead, it was successively located in several different rented spaces, including the second floor of Carpenters’ Hall, which was occupied by the library starting in 1773. However, the library wanted a building of its own, a move that Franklin himself encouraged. So, in 1789 the library solicited designs for a new building, stipulating that it should measure 70 feet by 48 feet, and be two stories in height. The winning entry came from a rather unlikely source in William Thornton, a physician who had no architectural training and had never before designed a building. This would not be the only such competition that he would win, though. Four years later, George Washington selected his design for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The new building, known as Library Hall, was built here on the east side of Fifth Street, a little south of Chestnut Street. This was an important location, as it was less than a block away from both Independence Hall, where the state legislature met, and Congress Hall, which would serve as the national capitol from 1790 to 1800. Construction began on Library Hall in 1789, and the cornerstone was laid on August 31. The stone featured an inscription written by Benjamin Franklin, who was still alive more than 50 years after he established the library. However, he would not live to see the building completed; he died on April 17, 1790, and the library moved into it around October. Two years later, the library added a marble statue of Franklin, which was installed in the niche above the front entrance.

The building’s completion occurred around the same time that the national government returned to Philadelphia, after a seven-year absence. The city would remain the capital for the next ten years, before the government moved to Washington. At the time, there was no Library of Congress, so the Library Company of Philadelphia served as the de facto national library for members of Congress during these formative years in the country’s history.

Also during this time, the library continued to expand its collections. In 1792 it absorbed the nearby Loganian Library, with its nearly 4,000 volumes. Although just completed, the new building here on Fifth Street was already too small, requiring a new wing to the rear that opened in 1794. This growth would continue into the 19th century, through a variety of bequests and purchases from private collections. By 1851, the library had around 60,000 volumes, making it the second-largest in the United States, behind only Harvard’s library.

As a result, the library was again in need of more space. A solution to this problem came in 1869, when Dr. James Rush left the library nearly $1 million in his will, for the purpose of constructing a new building. However, it came with stipulations, most significantly that it had to be located at the corner of Broad and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. This was far removed from the city center, and from the homes of most of the library’s patrons, so the gift caused considerable controversy. By a very narrow margin, library members ultimately voted to accept it, and the building—known as the Ridgway Library—was completed there in 1878. Because of its remoteness, though, the building was used primarily for storage and for housing rare books.

Around the same time that the Ridgway Library was completed, the Library Company began constructing a new downtown building. With a more convenient, central location, this would serve primarily as a lending library, and its collection focused on modern works. It opened in 1880 at the corner of Juniper and Locust Streets, replacing this Fifth Street building as the Library Company’s downtown facility. The old building was then sold, and it was demolished in the late 1880s to make way for an addition to the adjacent Drexel Building.

The Drexel Building was demolished in the 1950s as part of the development of the Independence National Historical Park. This project involved demolishing entire blocks in the area adjacent to Independence Hall, leaving only the most historically-significant buildings as part of the park. Most of this cleared land then became open space, but here on Fifth Street the Drexel Building was replaced by a replica of the old Library Hall. This building was completed in 1959 as the home of the American Philosophical Society.

Today, there is little evidence of the changes that have occurred here since the first photo was taken in 1859. Despite being barely 60 years old, the new building has the appearance of being from the 18th century, and it fits in well with the nearby historic buildings. There are hardly any differences between its exterior and that of its predecessor, and it even has a replica of the Franklin statue in the niche above the door. In the meantime, the original statue is probably the only surviving object from the first photo. The marble is now badly weathered, but it is on display inside the current home of the Library Company of Philadelphia, at 1314 Locust Street.

Mount Pleasant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Mount Pleasant mansion in Fairmount Park, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

Fairmount Park is located along the banks of the Schuylkill River, several miles to the northwest of downtown Philadelphia. During the colonial era, this area of the city was still sparsely-settled, and the bluffs overlooking the river were desirable locations for the country estates of some of Philadelphia’s affluent families. These mansions were generally used as summer homes, allowing these families to escape the heat and diseases of the densely-populated city center. Most of the homes were built in the 18th or early 19th centuries, and 16 are still standing today as part of Fairmount Park, the largest park in Philadelphia. Of these, perhaps the finest mansion is Mount Pleasant, which was built here in the early 1760s on the east bank of the Schuylkill River.

Mount Pleasant was designed by Thomas Nevell, and it is an excellent example of colonial Georgian-style architecture. As was typical for Georgian houses of the period, its design is symmetrical, and it makes use of decorative elements such as quoins on the corners, a pedimented doorway, a Palladian window, and a hip roof with dormers. The main house is flanked by two smaller buildings with matching exteriors. The one on the north side—which is just out of view on the right side of this scene—was the office, and the one on the south side, in the foreground of these photos, was the summer kitchen.

The original owner of this house was John MacPherson, a sea captain who became wealthy as a privateer during the French and Indian War. In command of the 20-gun ship Britannia, MacPherson captured several dozen French vessels throughout the war, in the process hurting the French war effort while simultaneously enriching himself. His exploits cost him his right arm, which he lost to a French cannonball in the midst of a battle, but upon returning to Philadelphia he used his new wealth to build his country estate here in Philadelphia. He originally named it Clunie, after his family’s ancestral home in Scotland, but subsequently changed it to Mount Pleasant. The size of the property also changed during MacPherson’s ownership; he started with about 31 acres, but the estate eventually grew to 120 acres.

MacPherson was a patriot during the American Revolution, and he even made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to become commander of the newly-established Continental Navy. His two sons, William and John, served in the Continental Army during the war. William resigned his commission as a British lieutenant in order to join the Continental Army, and he eventually became a brevet major and served on the staff of the Marquis de Lafayette. His brother John was also a staff officer during the war, serving as aide-de-camp to General Richard Montgomery, but both he and Montgomery were killed in the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775.

In the meantime, the elder John MacPherson interacted with high-ranking members of the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall throughout the war. On at least one occasion, on September 25, 1775, Massachusetts delegate John Adams visited him here at Mount Pleasant for dinner. The future president subsequently wrote about it in his diary, commenting on the house, his family, and MacPherson’s naval ambitions:

Rode out of town, and dined with Mr. McPherson. He has the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania, a clever Scotch wife, and two pretty daughters. His seat is on the banks of the Schuylkill. He has been nine times wounded in battle; an old sea commander; made a fortune by privateering; an arm twice shot off, shot through the leg, &c. He renews his proposals of taking or burning ships.

Despite living in “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania,” MacPherson eventually decided to move out of the house and offer it for sale. He had no immediate buyers, but in the meantime he leased the house to Juan de Miralles, Spain’s unofficial envoy to the United States. Although Spain was officially neutral at this point in the war, Miralles established connections with many American leaders in Philadelphia, including by hosting lavish balls here at Mount Pleasant.

Then, in 1779 General Benedict Arnold purchased Mount Pleasant from John MacPherson. At the time, Arnold was still an ostensibly loyal officer in the Continental Army. He had been a hero at the Battle of Saratoga, but in the process he suffered a leg injury. During his recovery he was unable to fight on the front lines, so Washington appointed him military governor of Philadelphia in 1778. However, Arnold’s volatile personality made him ill-suited for a position that required tact and subtlety in dealing with local leaders, and he also faced accusations that he was using his position to enrich himself. It was also during his time in Philadelphia that Arnold met and fell in love with 18-year-old Peggy Shippen, whose wealthy family had Loyalist sympathies. Despite being twice her age and from a very different social background, Arnold began courting her later in 1778, and they were married on April 8, 1779.

At the time, Arnold’s financial situation was somewhat strained, and he was under suspicion for misusing his authority for personal gain. However, he purchased Mount Pleasant as a wedding gift for Peggy, giving the impression that he was wealthier than he really was. In reality, he was hampered by debt, which would only worsen after he and Peggy moved in here and began living a lavish lifestyle. This, combined with Arnold’s belief that patriot leaders were not grateful for his actions and sacrifices that he made on the battlefield, ultimately helped lead him to famously betray the Continental Army in 1780. Peggy likely played a role in this decision as well, as she had Loyalist connections and may have helped initiate contact between Arnold and his British handler, Major John André.

As it turned out, the Arnolds’ stay here at Mount Pleasant was short. His treason was discovered after André was captured on September 23, 1780, and Arnold himself only narrowly escaped capture. Mount Pleasant was subsequently confiscated, and it changed hands several times before being purchased by Peggy’s father, Edward Shippen, in 1784. Despite his Loyalist connections during the war, and the infamy of his son-in-law, Shippen remained a respected member of Philadelphia society, eventually becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. He owned Mount Pleasant until 1792, when he sold it to Jonathan Williams.

Originally from Boston, Williams spent much of the Revolutionary period in France, first as a secretary to his great uncle, Benjamin Franklin, and then as a commercial agent of the United States. He later became an Army officer upon returning to the United States, and he held the position of Chief of Engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers from 1802 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. During this time, he also became the first superintendent of West Point, serving from 1801 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. In 1814 Williams was elected to the House of Representatives, but he died just two months into his term in 1815, without ever having attended a session of Congress.

After his death, his son Henry J. Williams inherited Mount Pleasant, and the house remained in the Williams family until 1853. By this point, the banks of the Schuylkill River were no longer as desirable a location for country estates as they had been a century earlier, in part because the city’s growth was encroaching on the area. Starting in the mid-19th century, the city of Philadelphia began purchasing estates along the river, in order to better protect the public water supply. These acquisitions became Fairmount Park, and in 1868 the city purchased Mount Pleasant and added it to the parkland.

The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, and it shows the exterior in a somewhat deteriorated condition, with plenty of peeling paint on both the main house and the kitchen building. However, in 1927 Mount Pleasant was restored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has administered the house ever since. It underwent another major restoration in the early 2000s, and today its exterior looks far better than it did when the first photo was taken 120 years ago. Adams’s description of it as being “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania” is as true now as it was in 1775, and in 1974 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historic and architectural significance.