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 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.

Philadelphia Bourse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Black Bear Tavern on South Fifth Street, seen looking south from near Market Street, in February 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Collection.

The scene around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo was taken in February 1859, showing the scene looking south on South 5th Street from near Market Street. In the foreground on the left is the Black Bear Inn, a four-story hotel that was built around 1816. The inn itself had been in operation since the 18th century, and it was originally located around the corner on Market Street before moving to this building. It was still in operation when the first photo was taken, and by this point the building had several other commercial tenants as indicated by the signs, including grocer Jeremiah Starr and wine and liquor dealers Schaffer & Montgomery.

Further down the street were several other early 19th century buildings. Among these was a group of rowhouses, visible to the right of the center of the photo with three dormer windows on the roof. The one furthest to the left, at 23 South 5th Street, was at the time the home of noted portrait artist Thomas Sully. Although born in England, Sully spent most of his life in Philadelphia, and he lived in this house for many years. During his long career he painted a number of prominent individuals, and he was responsible for the Seated Liberty coin design. Many years after his death, his work made another appearance on American money when his portrait of Andrew Jackson was incorporated into the design of the $20 bill.

The Black Bear Inn was ultimately demolished soon after the first photo was taken, and it was replaced by the Eastern Market, which opened here in November 1859. This building remained in use as a marketplace throughout the next few decades, but it was ultimately demolished in the early 1890s in order to construct the Philadelphia Bourse, which is shown here in both the second and third photos.

The Bourse was established in 1891 as a commodities exchange. Its founder, George E. Bartol, modeled it after the Bourse in Hamburg, Germany, and it was located in temporary quarters for several years while this building was under construction. The work was completed in 1895 after two years of construction, at a cost of about $2.4 million, equivalent to about $75 million today. It was designed by the noted Philadelphia architectural firm of G. W. & W. D. Hewitt, and it was one of the city’s first steel-frame skyscrapers.

When the building opened on October 1, 1895, its tenants included the Board of Trade, the Trades League, the Lumbermen’s Exchange, the Grocers and Importers Exchange, and the Hardware Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association. The Bourse soon became the commercial center of the city, and by the early 20th century it was also occupied by the Commercial Exchange, the Maritime Exchange, the Paint Manufacturers’ Club, and the Drug Exchange. Other tenants during this period included the Philadelphia offices of the Government Weather Bureau and the Navy’s Hydrographic Office, along with a variety of railroad and steamship agencies and other businesses.

In 1916, on the 25th anniversary of its establishment, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on the Bourse, in which it praised the effect that it has had on the city’s commerce, noting:

The Philadelphia Bourse is the only institution of its kind in the United States and in some of its features probably is better known outside of Philadelphia than by the people of this city. It is an application to Philadelphia of the European Bourse idea, a building in which merchants may meet to facilitate the transaction of business and which may house various commercial and business organizations, such as the Bourse du Commerce of Paris and the Bourses of Hamburg and Vienna. . . .

From a venture supported by farsighted and progressive business men in twenty-five years the Philadelphia Bourse has developed into an institution of national reputation. It has played a leading part in the development of the port and commercial life of this city and vicinity and within recent years it had taken an influential position in the commercial matters of the entire country.

The Bourse continued to function as a commodities exchange until the 1960s. Since then, it has been used for retail and commercial office space, and it now includes a food court on the ground floor. The building underwent a major $40 million renovation from 2016-2018, and today it remains well-preserved, with few exterior changes since the second photo was taken more than a century ago.

However, the Bourse is the only surviving building from the second photo. The buildings further in the distance were demolished a few years later to make room for the Lafayette Building, which was completed in 1907 and still stands at the corner of South 5th and Chestnut Streets. The building on the far left side in the foreground is also gone, as are all of the buildings on the opposite side of South 5th Street, which were demolished in the mid-20th century to create the Independence Mall.