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Philadelphia's Architectural Tradition

Part 1: 17th and 18th Century Architecture


The City of Philadelphia features outstanding examples of every important style and period, from works by the Colonial-era, carpenter-architects, to modern masterpieces by Howe and Lescaze, Louis I. Kahn and Rafael Viñoly.

17th Century Philadelphia

This tradition began in 1682, when William Penn and other members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established the city just above where the Schuylkill River flows into the Delaware River. Penn himself laid out Philadelphia with surveyor Thomas Holme, creating one of the earliest and clearest urban plans in the Americas.

The area known as Center City still conforms to the plan. It is a grid bounded by Vine Street on the north, South Street on the south, Front Street on the east (along the Delaware) and 24th Street on the west (the Schuylkill). Two thoroughfares - east-west Market Street and north-south Broad Street - intersect in the middle, dividing Center City into quadrants.

Penn designated the intersection of Broad and Market Streets, which was first known as Center Square, as the place for civic buildings. (Since the end of the 19th century, it has been occupied by City Hall.) Penn and Holme also set aside a green space within each quadrant - Rittenhouse, Washington, Franklin and Logan squares - at equal distances from the center.

18th Century Philadelphia

The city’s oldest structures are located in the eastern portions of Center City known as Old City and Society Hill. Here are the greatest number of authentic 18th century buildings in the country, as well as some of the most historically significant sites in the United States.

Among the notable residential buildings in these sections are:

  • The modest row houses in brick, dating from 1720, in Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continually inhabited street in the country. Map

  • The Betsy Ross House (1740) 239 Arch Street. Map

  • The three-story Powel House (1765), subdued on the exterior, but luxurious within and considered to be the finest Georgian row house in Philadelphia. 244 S. 3rd Street Map

  • The finely crafted Hill-Physick-Keith House (1786), one of the city’s free-standing mansions from the Federal period. 321 S. Fourth Street Map

Also in this area is Franklin Court, the site where Benjamin Franklin built his house and print shop. Although the original 18th century structures have been destroyed, the National Park Service has converted the site into an interpretive complex, with an innovative design by Venturi and Rauch with John Milner Associates. (1973-76). 314 Market Street Map

Religious buildings in this area include:

  • Christ Church (1727-44), a Georgian design modeled by John Kearsley on Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture. 20 N. American Street Map

  • St. Peter’s Church (1758-61), a restrained example of the Palladian style, designed and built by the carpenter-architect Robert Smith. 313 Pine Street Map

  • The Arch Street Friends Meeting House (Owen Biddle, 1803/05 and 1810/11), a plain, two-story brick structure with wood shutters and columned porticos over the doors, conveying the quiet dignity and simplicity that were primary values in the Philadelphia of this era. 320 Arch Street Map
The eastern portion of Center City also includes:
  • Independence Hall (first known as the State House), site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Built in 1732-48 by Alexander Hamilton with Edmund Wooley, the building is an outstanding example of Georgian design. Chestnut Street Between 5th and 6th Map

  • The nearby Carpenters’ Hall (Robert Smith, 1770-74), a guild hall built on Palladian models with Georgian details, was used by the Continental Congress in 1774. 320 Chestnut Street Map

  • The First Bank of the United States (1795-97), designed by Samuel Blodgett and James Windrim. 120 S. 3rd Street Map

  • The Second Bank of the United States (William Strickland, 1818-24), one of the first Greek Revival public buildings in the country, modeled on the Parthenon. 420 Chestnut Street Map

  • The Merchants’ Exchange (Strickland, 1832-33), the oldest stock exchange in the country, built in a later, more sumptuous version of the Greek Revival style. 143 S 3rd Street Map

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