Corner of Fifth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The northwest corner of Fifth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, in October 1857. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo was taken by photographer Frederick De Bourg Richards, as part of an effort to document Philadelphia’s historic 18th and early 19th century buildings. Unlike many of Richards’s other subjects, such as the Free Quaker Meeting House across the street from here, this three-story commercial building does not appear to have been a major historic landmark. In the original caption of the photo, the building is described simply as “a primitive house,” with no further information as to its history or date of construction. However, it was likely built sometime in the 1700s, and it may have once served as a single-family home before being converted into commercial use.

By the time the first photo was taken, the building was occupied by the publishing and bookselling firm of C. G. Henderson & Co. The company had been established in 1851, and was originally located in a building at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets. However, that building burned later in the year, and by 1852 C. G. Henderson was located here at the corner of Fifth and Arch. As shown in the first photo, the building featured a number of exterior advertisements, including a particularly large sign on the roof, proclaiming it to be “The Cheap Book Store.”

The bookstore seems to have closed within a year or two after the first photo was taken, but the fate of the building itself is somewhat less clear. It may have been demolished at some point in the late 19th century, but it was definitely gone by the mid-20th century, when this entire block, along with several others, was leveled to create the Independence Mall. Today, there are no surviving remnants from the first photo in this scene. Instead, the foreground here is open parkland, and further in the distance is the National Constitution, which occupies much of this block.

Free Quaker Meetinghouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Free Quaker Meetinghouse at the corner of Fifth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, in March 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Philadelphia was the national capital throughout most of the American Revolution, with the city serving as the meeting place of the Continental Congress. However, it also had a large population of Quakers, whose religious beliefs included a strong emphasis on pacifism. This caused significant tension between the colonial leaders here who favored independence, and the Quakers who opposed fighting the war. Far from simply refusing to serve in the military, many Quakers refused to pay taxes that would fund the military, and some even refused to use the currency issued by the Continental Congress, believing that the currency was also being used to pay for the war.

Even within the Quaker community, though, there was significant dissent regarding the war for independence. Here in Philadelphia, some were ultimately expelled for supporting the Revolution, and in 1781 they formed the Religious Society of Free Quakers. The group collected money to purchase a lot and build a meeting house, and among the contributors were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The design and construction of the building was largely done by Samuel Wetherill and Timothy Matlack, who were among the leaders of the Free Quakers. Matlack had been a delegate to the Continental Congress during the Revolution, but he is probably best remembered for his penmanship; he hand-wrote the official engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The meeting house was completed in 1783, and the occasion was commemorated by a marble tablet under the gable on the Arch Street side of the building, which reads “By general subscription for the Free Quakers, erected in the Year of our Lord, 1783, of the Empire 8.” The last part of the inscription refers to the fact that it was the eight year of the American “empire,” with 1776 as its starting point. At the time, the term empire was a bit of an overstatement for a loosely-affiliated group of 13 states on the east coast, but it ultimately foreshadowed the country’s future expansion across the continent.

Aside from Matlack, several other notable Philadelphians were involved with the Free Quakers, including Betsy Ross, the heroine of the famous but likely apocryphal story about the first American flag. Another likely attendee was Dolley Payne, whose father appears to have joined the Free Quakers after being expelled from the Pine Street Meeting. However, Dolley herself was later expelled from the faith when, in 1794, she married a non-Quaker: future president James Madison.

The Free Quakers steadily dwindled in number during the early 19th century, as the original members either died or moved elsewhere. During this time, though, the building was used for a number of other purposes aside from religious gatherings. From 1788 to 1791, part of the building was the home of John Poor’s Academy for Young Ladies, and from 1791 to 1799 it was occupied by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Then, from 1800 to 1836 it housed the Philadelphia Select Academy.

In the meantime, the Free Quakers continued to use the meeting house until the late 1830, and after this it was used purely for secular purposes. The next long-term occupant was the Apprentices’ Library Company, which moved into the building in 1841. The library made some changes to the building, including two additions in the 1850s and 1860s, and the organization remained here until 1897. The first photo was taken during this time, in 1859, and the photo shows signs for the Apprentices’ Library on both sides of the building.

Today, more than 160 years after the first photo was taken, and nearly 240 years after the building opened, the Free Quaker Meeting House still stands here as an important landmark at the corner of Arch and Fifth Streets. All of the other historic buildings nearby were demolished in the mid-20th century in order to create the Independence Mall, but the meeting house survived, likely because of its connection to Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. However, the building was relocated in 1961, in order to accommodate the widening of Fifth Street. It was moved 33 feet west and 8 feet south to its current location, and this project also included removing the 19th century additions and subsequently restoring the building to its 1780s appearance.

Mercantile Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Mercantile Library at the corner of Fifth Street and Library Street in Philadelphia, in December 1858. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Prior to the second half of the 19th century, public libraries were essentially nonexistent in the United States. Instead, most cities had library organizations that were open to subscribing members. Among the first of these was the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, but by the early 19th century Philadelphia had several other libraries, including the Mercantile Library. It was established in 1821, and it was originally intended to serve primarily merchants and merchants’ clerks. However, its membership eventually expanded beyond the mercantile industry, and it became a popular library among the general public.

The library was housed in a series of different locations during its early years, but in 1845 this building was completed here at the corner of Fifth and Library Streets. It was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William L. Johnston, and it featured a Greek Revival exterior, including a columned portico here on the Fifth Street side of the building. The building was dedicated on September 6, 1845, with a ceremony that included a keynote speech by Congressman Joseph Reed Ingersoll, who would later become the United States Minister to Great Britain.

The first photo shows the building a little over a decade later, in 1858. By this point the library had around two thousand members, and around 20,000 books in its collection. Its most popular items were novels, which accounted for 60 percent of the books checked out in 1858. As described in the 1884 History of Philadelphia, the library focused on developing its collection of novels, as the librarians saw it as “their duty to gratify popular tastes, taking care, however, not to furnish material for abnormal or morbid appetites.” Because of this, the novels were carefully curated, to avoid any “immoral or pernicious works” in the library.

By 1868 the library had grown to a membership of 6,387, and a total of 52,000 books. The following year, the library sold this building and relocated to a new facility on Tenth Street. It continued to prosper throughout much of the 19th century, but then in 1894 the Free Library of Philadelphia opened, which provided a free alternative to subscription libraries. The Mercantile Library was ultimately absorbed into the public library system, with its Tenth Street location becoming a branch library.

In the meantime, the old building here on Fifth Street was converted into offices. By the early 1870s it was owned by Horatio N. Burroughs, and it became known as the Burroughs Building. It was ultimately demolished around 1925, and this site is now open parkland as part of the Independence National Historical Park.

Fifth Street from Ranstead Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Buildings on the east side of Fifth Street, looking south toward the corner of Chestnut Street, in February 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

This scene is similar to the one in an earlier post, just from a little further south along Chestnut Street. The building in the foreground here was built sometime around the late 18th or early 19th centuries, and over the years it was occupied by several prominent people. Most notably, it was the home of artist Thomas Sully, who lived in the townhouse on the far left side, at 23 South Fifth Street, from 1826 until his death in 1872. He was best known as a portrait painter, and perhaps his most recognizable painting was of Andrew Jackson; the portrait was later incorporated into the modern $20 bill. His other works included the Seated Liberty design, which appeared on most American silver coins from 1836 until 1891.

Sully was living here when the first photo was taken in 1859, and immediately beyond his house, at 25 South Fifth Street, was the music store of George E. Blake. Originally from England, Blake came to America sometime before 1793, and became a music teacher in Philadelphia. He subsequently became a music publisher, and by around 1814 he was running his business out of this building, in the center storefront. He was still here nearly 50 years later in the first photo, and he operated the store until his death in 1871 at the age of 96.

The other important building in the first photo is the five-story cast iron building on the right side, at the corner of Fifth and Chestnut Streets. It was completed in 1855, at the height of the popularity of cast iron architecture, and it was owned by Frederick Brown, a druggist who had his business here. Among his products was Brown’s Essence of Jamaica Ginger, which promised to treat ailments such as “ordinary diarrhoea, incipient cholera, in short, in all cases of the digestive functions,” according to an 1861 newspaper advertisement. Brown had been in business since the early 1820s, originally in a much older building on this site, and in the early years he seems to have mostly been a local druggist. However, by the late 1850s his business had significantly expanded, and his Essence of Jamaica Ginger was available throughout the country.

This scene underwent a change soon after the first photo was taken. This section of Fifth Street was slated to be the home of the new Eastern Market, the precursor to the modern Philadelphia Bourse that stands there now. Part of this project involved opening Rainstead Street on the south side of the new building. However, in the original plan this would have required the demolition of Thomas Sully’s house. Sully and his wife Sarah requested that their house be spared, and the city agreed, choosing to modify the plan rather than forcing the distinguished elderly couple to relocate. The resulting compromise resulted in a street that was somewhat narrower, taking a portion of the yard on the left side of the house while leaving the house itself intact.

It seems unclear exactly when Sully’s house and the adjoining rowhouses were ultimately demolished. It could have been as early as the 1870s, after Sully died, but the houses were definitely gone by 1907, when the Lafayette Building was constructed on the site. This 11-story office building had its main entrance on Chestnut Street, where the Frederick Brown building had stood in the first photo, but it also spanned the entire length of Fifth Street from Chestnut to Rainstead Street. It is still standing here today, as shown in the 2019 photo, although it no longer functions as an office building; in the early 2010s it was converted into the Hotel Monaco.

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.