Mount Vernon, Virginia (4)

Looking south along the east piazza of the Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As shown in the previous post, perhaps the most distinctive feature of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is the piazza here on the east side of the mansion, although it is not original to the house. The house was constructed in several stages, starting around 1734 when the future president’s father, Augustine Washington, built a small house here. This was later expanded twice by George Washington, first in 1758 with the construction of a full second story, and then in 1774 with additions on both the north and south sides, along with the piazza on the east side.

The mansion sits on a bluff about 125 feet above the Potomac River, and from here the piazza offers expansive views of the river and the Maryland shoreline on the opposite side. Following the American Revolution, George Washington had envisioned that the river would serve as the primary gateway to the west, with all of the resulting east-west traffic literally passing by his front door. He was even involved with establishing the Patowmack Company, which made navigational improvements further upstream. The river ultimately did not become the great trade route that he had hoped, but it did become the site of the new national capital of Washington, D. C., which was built only 15 miles upstream on Mount Vernon.

After George Washington’s death in 1799 and his widow Martha’s in 1802, Mount Vernon remained in the Washington family for more than 50 years. It steadily declined during this period, though, and by the late 1850s the piazza was in danger of collapsing, with ship masts being used to support the roof. Then, in 1858 the last Washington owner, John Augustine Washington III, sold the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization restored the mansion, and opened it to the public and a museum in 1860, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Very little has changed here at Mount Vernon since then. The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, showing at least nine visitors, mostly women, on and around the piazza. More than a century later, it looks essentially the same as it did then, with even the same style chairs still lined up here. The estate is still owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and it remains open to the public as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Virginia.

Mount Vernon, Virginia (3)

The Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, seen from the east side around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in a previous post, which shows the house from the west side, Mount Vernon was the estate of George Washington, who lived here from 1754 until his death in 1799. This property had been in the Washington family since 1674, when it was acquired by John Washington. His grandson, George Washington’s father Augustine Washington, later owned the land, and around 1734 he built the original portion of this house, on the banks overlooking the Potomac River.

In 1739, Augustine Washington gave the property—which was then known as Little Hunting Creek—to his oldest son Lawrence. He subsequently renamed it Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer Admiral Edward Vernon, and he lived here until his death in 1752, when he was in his early 30s. Lawrence and his wife Anne had four children, although all of them died young, and shortly after his death she remarried to George Lee and moved out of the house.

Under the conditions of Lawrence’s will, Anne owned Mount Vernon for the rest of her life, at which point his brother George would inherit it. With the house vacant, though, Anne began leasing it to her brother-in-law starting in 1754, when George Washington was about 22 years old. In 1758 he expanded the house by adding a second story, and then in 1761 he gained ownership of the property upon Anne’s death.

In the meantime, in 1759 Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow who was a year older than him. They never had any children together, but Martha had two surviving children from her first marriage, and they grew up here at Mount Vernon. This was also around the time that Washington became involved in politics. He had served with distinction as a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, and in 1758 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he served until the beginning of the American Revolution.

Washington further expanded the mansion here at Mount Vernon in 1774, with two-story additions on either side of the original house. The large piazza here on the east side was also added as part of this project, and it would later become perhaps the most recognizable feature of the house. However, Washington did not get to enjoy the enlarged house for very long, because in 1775 he traveled north to take command of the Continental Army, and he was away from Mount Vernon for eight years before the war ended.

At the end of the war, Washington resigned his commission in the Continental Army and returned to civilian life here at Mount Vernon. His retirement did not last for long, though, because in 1789 he was elected president. For the next eight years, Washington spent most of his time in the temporary capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, before eventually returning to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term in 1797. He lived here for the last two and a half years of his life before his death in 1799, and Martha Washington died in 1802.

With no biological children, George Washington left Mount Vernon to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, who was a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. After his death in 1829, his nephew John Augustine Washington II inherited it, followed by John’s son, John Augustine Washington III. He was the last member of the Washington family to own Mount Vernon, and in 1858 he sold the estate to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which preserved it and turned it into a museum.

By the time the association acquired the property, the mansion was in poor condition. As with many other southern planters, the Washington family owned vast amounts of land, but had relatively little cash. Consequently, the house suffered from many years of neglect, to the point that by the 1850s ships’ masts were being used as makeshift supports for the piazza roof, which was in danger of collapsing. However, the house was subsequently restored, and it opened to the public in 1860.

The first photo was taken about 40-50 years later, showing the mansion’s appearance at the turn of the 20th century. As shown in the second photo, very little has changed since then, aside from the removal of the small porch on the left side and the balustrades over the piazza, neither of which existed during George Washington’s ownership. The estate is still owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and open for public tours, and it remains a popular tourist attraction, drawing an estimated one million visitors here each year.

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (2)

The Great Hall at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The Great Hall at the Library of Congress was previously featured in an earlier blog post, although these photos here show a different angle, facing east toward the entrance to the Main Reading Room. As with the rest of the building, the Great Hall features ornate Beaux-Arts architecture, and it is decorated with symbolic carvings and paintings.

Starting at the bottom of this scene are three arches, which lead to the Main Reading Room. The central arch was designed by sculptor Olin L. Warner, and it features two male figures: one young, representing the search for knowledge, and the other old, representing wisdom and reflection. Above these figures is a tablet inscribed with the names of the people involved in the construction of this building, and the tablet is flanked by a pair of eagles.

On the second floor, the ceiling is supported by pairs of Corinthian columns, connected by more arches. Above each pair of columns in the foreground is a small tablet with the name of a prominent author. From left to right in this scene, they are Cervantes, Hugo, Scott, and Cooper. Further in the distance is another row of columns, and above these are painted figures of women, personifying the different genres of literature. In this scene, from left to right, they are Lyrica, Tragedy, Comedy, and History, and they were all painted by artist George Randolph Barse Jr. Beyond these, at the top of the stairs in the center of the scene, is a mosaic of Minerva, representing learning and wisdom. At 15.5 feet in height, the mosaic is more than double life size, and it was the work of artist Elihu Vedder.

The first photo was taken around 1897, the same year that this building opened. More than 120 years later, hardly anything has changed in this scene, and the Library of Congress remains one of the capital’s great architectural masterpieces, in addition to its role as one of the world’s largest libraries. Most of its collections are only accessible through the Main Reading Room, which requires a Reader Identification Card to enter. However, some of its most important items are on display here in the public parts of the building, including its copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which the library acquired in 1930. It is one of only five complete Gutenberg Bibles in the United States, and one of only 21 worldwide, and it is currently on display here in the Great Hall, just beyond the arch in the lower right corner of the present-day photo.

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in an earlier post on the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Library of Congress is one of the largest libraries in the world, with over 167 million items located in four different buildings in and around Washington, D.C. The original building, which is now named the Thomas Jefferson Building, is here on Capitol Hill, directly opposite the Capitol and adjacent to the Supreme Court Building. The building was completed in 1897, and today it stands as both an important research library and also a significant architectural landmark, with a highly ornate Beaux-Arts design on both the interior and exterior.

The centerpiece of the building is the Main Reading Room, shown here in these two photos. The room is octagonal, with desks arranged in concentric circles and the circulation desk in the center of the room. It is 125 feet in height from the floor to the top of the dome, and the room is surrounded by eight large columns that support the arches beneath the dome.

Above each of these columns is a 10 1/2-foot-tall plaster statue, with each representing a different branch of knowledge. These eight allegorical female figures are Art, Commerce, History, Law, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, and Science. Just below the tops of the columns is a balustrade that encircles the room, featuring sixteen bronze statues of men who were recognized for their accomplishments in one of these eight fields. They are arranged so that the statues on each side of every column correspond to the representative figure atop the column.

In this particular view, the two allegorical statues are Philosophy on the left, created by sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt; and Art on the right, by Francois M. L. Tonetti-Dozzi. The bronze statues on either side of Philosophy are Plato on the left and Bacon on the right, both by John J. Boyle. On the left side of Art is Michelangelo by Paul Wayland Bartlett, and on the right is Beethoven by Theodore Baur.

The first photo was taken around 1904, less than a decade after this building opened. Since then, the library has significantly expanded, with three additional buildings to house its growing collections, but the Thomas Jefferson Building has remained essentially the same. There have been hardly any changes here in the Main Reading Room in more than a century, and the room remains one of the most impressive interior spaces in Washington.

Today, the Main Reading Room is open only to those who have a Reader Identification Card, which are available for free to researchers over the age of 16. These researchers can only use the materials here in the reading room, though, as only high-ranking government officials are permitted to check out books. Other parts of the building, including the Great Hall, are open to the public, and visitors can also view the Main Reading Room from the gallery where these two photos were taken.

Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Christ Church, seen from North Second Street in Philadelphia, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2019:

The city of Philadelphia was established in 1682 by William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony. Although Penn and his followers were Quakers, the colony was tolerant of other religions, and they were soon joined by settlers of other faiths, including Episcopalians, who established Christ Church in 1695. A small wooden church was built here on this site a year later, and it remained in use throughout the early 18th century.

However, in 1727, the parish began construction of a much larger church building. It took the next 17 years to build, and it was one of the grandest churches in the colonies at the time, in sharp contrast to the city’s plain, modest Quaker meeting houses. It featured Georgian-style architecture, with a design that was based on the London churches of famed architect Christopher Wren. The church itself was completed in 1744, although it took another ten years before the steeple was built. When finished, the steeple stood 196 feet in height, making it the tallest building in the American colonies at the time. It would continue to hold this record for more than 50 years, until the completion of Park Street Church in Boston in 1810.

During the 18th century, many of Philadelphia’s leading citizens were members of Christ Church. The most notable of these was Benjamin Franklin, who had even organized a lottery to help finance the completion of the steeple. Several other signers of the Declaration of Independence were also members, including Francis Hopkinson, Robert Morris, and Benjamin Rush. Even colonial governor John Penn—grandson of the Quaker William Penn—was a member. Given Philadelphia’s role as the seat of the Continental Congress, and later as the temporary national capital, a number of other founding fathers also attended services here, including George Washington and John Adams.

Throughout most of the American Revolution, the rector of Christ Church was the Reverend William White, who also served as chaplain of both the Continental Congress and later the United States Senate. After the war, Reverend White played an important role in the formal separation of the Episcopal Church from the Church of England. The first General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held here at Christ Church in 1785, and in 1787 White was ordained as the first bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He subsequently became the first presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, serving in 1789 and from 1795 until his death in 1836. During this time, he continued to serve as rector of Christ Church, serving in that role for a total of 57 years.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, Christ Church was already more than 150 years old. Its interior had been remodeled several times by then, but the exterior remained largely unchanged in its 18th century appearance. Around this time, in 1908, the steeple was damaged in a fire caused by a lightning strike, but this was subsequently repaired.

Since then, there have been few changes to this scene, aside from the trees in the foreground, which partially hide the church in the present-day photo. The angle is a little different between the two photos, though, because the first one was evidently taken from the upper floors of a building across the street, allowing for a wider view than from street level on the narrow street. During this time, Christ Church has remained standing as both an active Episcopalian parish and as a major tourist attraction. It is one of the most important surviving works of Georgian architecture in the country, and in 1970 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The former Second Bank of the United States, on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

The establishment of a national bank was one of the most controversial economic matters in the early years of the United States government, pitting Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton against Democratic-Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, who generally represented urban and northern interests, favored a strong central government in order to promote trade and industry, while the Democratic-Republicans, who were primarily southern and rural, saw such a government as a threat, instead preferring a decentralized, agrarian-based economy.

Over the objections of prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the First Bank of the United States was established in 1791. At the time, the national capital was here in Philadelphia, with Congress meeting in Congress Hall, adjacent to Independence Hall. As a result, the bank was also headquartered in Philadelphia, where it operated out of Carpenters’ Hall until 1797, when a new bank building was completed nearby on South Third Street. The national government subsequently relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1800, but the bank remained in Philadelphia, and it continued to operate until 1811, when its twenty-year charter expired and Congress declined to renew it.

The country was without a national bank for the next five years, but in 1816 Congress authorized a new bank, the Second Bank of the United States. Ironically, this legislation was signed into law by President James Madison, who had come to recognize the need for a national bank after his earlier misgivings about the First Bank. Like its predecessor, the Second Bank was privately owned yet subject to government oversight, and its important roles included regulating public credit and stabilizing the national currency. This was particularly important in the years during and after the Madison administration, as the country recovered from the War of 1812 and began a series of ambitious internal improvements.

As with the First Bank, the Second Bank was located in Philadelphia, and it began operations in 1817. It also used Carpenters’ Hall as its temporary home, but in 1824 the bank moved into this newly-completed building on Chestnut Street. Designed by noted architect William Strickland, it features a Greek Revival exterior that is modeled on the Parthenon, with a pediment and eight Doric columns on both the north and south facades. This was an early example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, and this style subsequently became very popular across the country in the next few decades, particularly for government and other institutional buildings.

By the time the building was completed in 1824, the bank had already faced significant criticism for its role in the Panic of 1819, the first major financial crisis in American history. Although part of a larger worldwide recession, it was also a consequence of the lending practices here at the Second Bank of the United States. Along with its role as the national bank, it also made loans to corporations and private individuals, and during its first few years it extended too much credit to borrowers. Then, in an effort to correct this, the bank began restricting credit, causing a nationwide rise in interest rates and unemployment, and a drop in property values and prices of farm produce. This ultimately triggered a financial panic in 1819, which was followed by an economic recession that lasted for several years.

The bank’s first two presidents were largely ineffective, but in 1823 Philadelphia native Nicholas Biddle became the bank president. He oversaw a slow but steady expansion of credit, along with an increase in banknotes, and during his tenure he managed to rehabilitate the bank’s image in the general public. This building on Chestnut Street opened about a year into his presidency, and he would continue to run the bank here for the next 12 years, until it closed in 1836 after its charter expired.

During these years, the bank — including its 25 branches across the country — played an important role in the nation’s economic growth. However, despite the bank’s success, it continued to generate controversy, becoming a central political issue during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. First elected in 1828, Jackson had a distrust of banks in general and the Second Bank of the United States in particular. He was skeptical of both paper money and lending, and he also opposed the bank on constitutional grounds. Echoing the earlier opposition to the First Bank, he argued that, as the Constitution does not explicitly authorize Congress to establish a national bank, it was an infringement upon the rights of the states.

In 1832, Congress approved a renewal of the bank’s charter, which was due to expire in four years. However, Jackson vetoed the bill, and Congress was unable to gather enough votes to override it. A year later, Jackson removed federal deposits from the bank and placed them into various state banks. Biddle subsequently made another effort to renew the charter, but despite his financial abilities he lacked strong political skills, and the bank’s charter ultimately expired in February 1836.

The bank itself did not close at this time, instead becoming the United States Bank of Philadelphia, with Nicholas Biddle still at the helm. However, the lack of a national bank soon became a factor in the Panic of 1837, which led to a seven-year recession. It was the worst economic crisis until the Great Depression, and it triggered a number of bank failures, including the United States Bank of Philadelphia. At the start of the recession, it had been the largest bank in the country, yet it ultimately went bankrupt in 1841.

A year later, Charles Dickens came to Philadelphia as part of his 1842 trip to the United States. He had few positive things to say about the country in his subsequent book, American Notes for General Circulation, and he painted a particularly bleak picture of the scene here at the old bank building with the following description:

We reached the city, late that night. Looking out of my chamber-window, before going to bed, I saw, on the opposite side of the way, a handsome building of white marble, which had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in and out. The door was still tight shut, however; the same cold cheerless air prevailed: and the building looked as if the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any business to transact within its gloomy walls. I hastened to inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished. It was the Tomb of many fortunes; the Great Catacomb of investment; the memorable United States Bank.

The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous consequences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits.

As it turned out, the building did not remain vacant for very long. In 1845, it became the U. S. Custom House for the port of Philadelphia, and it was used in this capacity for far longer than it was ever used as a bank. It was still the Custom House when the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, and this continued until 1934, when the present Custom House opened two blocks away. Then, in 1939, the old building was transferred to the National Park Service, which has owned it ever since.

The building has seen several different uses over the past 80 years, but it currently houses the Second Bank Portrait Gallery. It features a number of portraits by prominent late 18th and early 19th century artist Charles Willson Peale, including those of many important colonial-era leaders, such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Most of the interior has been heavily altered since its time as a bank, although the exterior has remained well-preserved, with few changes from its appearance in the first photo. It is now part of the Independence National Historical Park, and in 1987 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.