Philadelphia's Historic Sites
Introduction. Philadelphia probably has the largest collection of extent colonial era buildings in the United States. The centerpiece of this vast historical treasure is undoubtedly Independence National Historical Park, in the city’s historical center, located to the east of Philadelphia’s downtown known as Center City. Most visitors will be drawn to this display of beautiful colonial and federal era buildings which features Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and the Liberty Bell Pavilion among others. However, many fail to realize that the city offers far more historical buildings both near and far from the core area surrounding Independence Hall. This list below includes a number of the highlights, some often overlooked, and others well known and focuses on the colonial and early federal era of the city’s fine historic collection which remains scattered across the expanse of the city’s limits. Federal era buildings were constructed beginning in the 1780s and as the name suggests the style closely identified with the newly independent United States. While colonial buildings were inspired often along Georgian themes, Federal era buildings looked to the ancient Roman Republic and Greek city states as their inspiring models. It’s no surprise that Philadelphia was once known as the “Athens of the United States” and these fine columned buildings with impressive porticos and pediments can still be seen in Old City. Philadelphia was also at one time the second largest city in the British Empire after London and the center of colonial America. So where’s the Liberty Bell in all this? In the Liberty Bell Pavilion just north of Independence Hall on the Independence Mall.
St. George’s Methodist Church. Old City. One of the oldest Methodist churches in the United States, St. George’s is considered a Methodist shrine. Located just north of Old City, on 4th and New Streets, the church was built in 1769.
Free Quaker Meeting House. Old City. This simple two-storey Federal style building dates to 1783 and is part of the Independence National Historical Park. It is one of the oldest Quaker meeting houses in the city.
St. Joseph’s Church. Society Hill. The oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia dates to 1733 although the current standing structure was built in 1838. At its founding Old St. Joseph’s was the only place in the English-speaking world where Catholic mass could be celebrated.
Betsy Ross House. Old City. Owned by the City of Philadelphia this Georgian style home dates to 1740 and has undergone numerous changes over the years. It is said that Betsy Ross possibly made the American flag in this dwelling. She lived here with John Ross, her first husband, from 1774 until 1785. Her remains are buried in a plot adjacent to the house.
Franklin Court. Old City. A reconstructed site of Benjamin Franklin’s home. There is also an underground museum, printing exhibit, U.S. Post Office, and an archeological exhibit. Only the foundations of Franklin’s original home still exist, visible under enclosed glass. The structure, long since torn down, is cleverly outlined by a steel skeletal frame that replicates what were thought to be the original dimensions of Franklin’s house. This was built for the Bicentennial celebrations and sits in the middle of Franklin Court.
Strawberry Mansion and Lemon Hill. Fairmount Park. There are dozens of old colonial and early republic mansions that dot the hills above the Schuylkill, such as Lemon Hill (c. 1800), a federal-style mansion, and Strawberry Mansion (c. 1789), probably the best known, to name a few. They are mostly administered and owned by the Fairmount Park Commission or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Period furnishings adorn the houses.
Congress Hall. Old City. Just west of Independence Hall sits Congress Hall and as the name implies it housed the U.S. Congress from 1790 until 1800. This Federal style building was designed by Samuel Lewis and constructed between 1787 and 1789. It was also the former Philadelphia County Courthouse. It is now part of Independence National Historical Park. Old City Hall sits on the east side of Independence Hall. It housed the U.S. Supreme Court between 1791 and 1800, and was formerly Philadelphia’s City Hall. It was built in 1774 by William Strickland.
Philadelphia Exchange. Old City. Also known as the Merchant’s Exchange Building this beautiful Greek Revival structure was designed by William Strickland between 1832 and 1834. It is now part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Old Navy Asylum. South Philadelphia. Not open to the public, you can at least view the front of this building street side and be reminded why Philadelphia was once referred to as the ‘Athens of the United States’. The Greek Revival building was designed by William Strickland in 1827 and served as a navy hospital, naval school, and naval home until 1976.
Deshler-Morris House. Germantown. Now known as the Germantown White House, the Deshler-Morris House is in Germantown far from CenterCity, but it’s no surprise to learn a little known fact that it was one of two sites that Rockefeller planned to revive as a historic theme park. He chose Williamsburg, Virginia, which partially explains Germantown’s somewhat neglected appearance today. The Deshler-Morris House was Washington’s official home in 1793 and 1794 and was built in 1752 by David Deshler. It remains the oldest existing official presidential residence because Philadelphia was the federal capital at the time. The house is part of Independence National Historical Park. The British General Howe also occupied the house briefly after the Battle of Germantown in 1777.
Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church. South Philadelphia. This church is unique in that it sits away from Old City Philadelphia laid out by William Penn, yet predates it as well. Instead this church was founded by Swedish Lutherans although today it serves Episcopalians. The church sits at its original location, founded in 1677, and has undergone various changes in appearance. It is part of the IndependenceNationalHistoricalPark, but it is also an active congregation. It is the oldest church in Pennsylvania.
Independence Hall. Old City. One of the best surviving examples of colonial Georgian architecture in the United States, Independence Hall served many functions in its vital role making it one of the most important historical buildings in the country. Its pivotal role in historical events and its unique architecture – the building was constructed in 1753 – have earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list as well as its better known designation as the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park. Independence Hall is only a nickname that stuck as it was formerly the Pennsylvania State House when Pennsylvania was still a colony, and it also served as an early national capitol of sorts during the Second Continental Congress (1775 – 1783), and hosted the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was in this building that the Declaration of Independence was adopted as well as the U.S. Constitution. This is where it all began.
Elfreth’s Alley. Old City. On the north edge of Old City, visitors to this narrow, cobbled street are surprised to find that people still live in the dwellings, some of which date to the early 1700s. It is said to be the continuously oldest inhabited street in the Untied States and a walk down the alley past the colonial style homes is truly a time warped experience.
Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site. Spring Garden. Within walking distance of Old City, this small historic site preserves the only surviving dwelling where Poe lived during his seven years in Philadelphia. The house dates to 1842 and is open to tours on selected days of the week.
Carpenter’s Hall. Old City. Eclipsed by nearby Independence Hall in size and stature, Carpenter’s Hall is a modest two story Georgian building, built in 1770, which hosted the First Continental Congress making it one of the country’s oldest capitols. The building is still owned by the Carpenter’s Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, an old trade guild.
First Bank of the United States. Old City. One of two new buildings constructed while Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, the First Bank of the United States, built between 1791 and 1797, serves as an excellent example of early Federal era architecture and remained in use by the government until 1811. It is part of Independence National Historical Park.
Second Bank of the United States. Old City. This beautiful Greek Revival building was designed by William Strickland in 1816 and is now the portrait gallery for Independence National Historical Park.
Graff House. Old City. Also known as the Declaration House, this reconstructed colonial style house is where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. Located on the corner of 7th and Market, it was at the time on the city’s outskirts. The original house was torn down in 1883 but old photographs are largely responsible for its sympathetic reconstruction.
Thaddeus Koscuiszko National Memorial. Society Hill. Built in 1772, this house is often considered the smallest (in area) national park in the country. It is where General Koscuiszko lived from 1797 to 1798 after he was exiled from his native Poland following a failed uprising.
Rittenhouse Town. Fairmount Park. FairmountPark is an oasis in the middle of an urban sea. Its huge expanse covers a total of 9,200 acres and within its boundaries are a number of historic properties best underscored by the country mansions that overlooked the steep banks of the SchuylkillRiver. Established in 1690 by David Rittenhausen, the old site included a mill and other structures (since demolished and recreated). It is located off Lincoln Drive in Fairmount Park.
Christ Church. Old City. The towering steeple of Old City’s tallest church has overlooked the skyline since 1744 although the original church dates to 1695 and remains one of the nation’s best examples of Georgian architecture. Today the church is Episcopal, and still contains the baptismal font of William Penn which was sent from London in 1697. The steeple, 60 meters (197 feet) high, was once the tallest structure in North America. The church’s burial ground is another superlative in colonial big names, and contains the remains of Robert Morris among other signers of the Declaration. Benjamin Franklin is buried in the nearby Christ Church Burial Ground, which is associated with church.
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