Historic Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood occupies a half-mile wide stretch of land along the Delaware River, bounded by Spring Garden Street in the north and Walnut Street to the south. These days, Old City is known as an arts district with a number of galleries, boutiques, and theaters, but more than three hundred years ago, it was the area first settled by William Penn and the Quakers, who believed that organized spaces led to moral and disciplined minds. This belief, and an interest in selling standardized land plots to investors back in England, led Penn to lay out his new settlement in a grid pattern in order to spread homes and businesses apart, prevent fire and disease, and provide space for gardens and trees between the buildings. It was the first planned city in America. His vision didn’t last, however, and people soon began crowding together near the riverfront and dividing their lots into smaller parcels, seemingly more interested in convenience and affordability than in Penn’s ideals. Before long, Philadelphia became the most populous city in British America.

Because of its size and central location in the colonies, the city became the natural meeting place for American revolutionaries in the 1760s and 70s, hosting both Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention after America won the War of Independence. It also served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1790-1800 while the District of Columbia was under construction. Philadelphia was once considered for the nation’s capital but the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, consisting of Continental Army soldiers demanding back pay, sent Congress fleeing south.

Housing such notable places as Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross house, Elfreth’s Alley (a historic cobblestone street), and Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s Old City is a showcase of American history. For decades, city government protected small-scale 18th and 19th century structures in the Old City neighborhood in order to preserve its historical context. Maintaining these structural relationships and a high state of preservation was crucial to UNESCO’s 2015 decision to make Philadelphia the first World Heritage City in the United States.

The Road to Independence

Of all the roadways in Philadelphia, Chestnut Street is perhaps the most historically interesting. Running east and west through the southern part of the Old City, it is primarily known as the address of Independence Hall, but many other historic buildings line its sides as well. Moving east down Chestnut Street, one finds the American Philosophical Society (APS), which Benjamin Franklin founded in 1743 to pursue

“all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.”

Next to the APS is the Second Bank of the United States, with the First Bank of the United States a block further down. Both of these buildings were constructed in the Neoclassical style of the late 18th century, and the First Bank was the first national structure in the U.S. to be built with a marble facade. The solidity of the bank’s appearance belies the early debates over its constitutionality and its role in stabilizing a young nation. Between the two banks on Chestnut Street lies Carpenter’s Hall. This modest brick structure has fulfilled many needs, hosting the First Continental Congress in 1774 and Franklin’s Library Company, and housing the American Philosophical Society and the First and Second Banks of the United States when their own buildings were under construction.

More recently, Chestnut Street has become the home of significant state, federal, and international structures like the Consulate General of Italy, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Philadelphia Passport Agency. Carefully designed to fit in with their historic surroundings, these newer buildings prove that Chestnut Street is not stuck in the past, but maintains its relevance to this day.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Despite all of the other historically important buildings on Chestnut Street, Independence Hall remains the primary symbol of Philadelphia. In 1979, it was one of the first locations in the United States to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has been held up as a model of documentary research and historic preservation ever since. Originally known as the State House, Independence Hall is a red brick, two-story structure that was built to serve as the meeting place for the colonial government of Pennsylvania. Its plan is symmetrical, consisting of a central building topped with a bell tower, and smaller, arcaded wings on either side. Designed by Edmund Woolley and Andrew Hamilton in the then modern Georgian style, the building was constructed in parts from 1732 to 1751, as funds permitted.

Independence Hall earned its name as the place where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was first read and ratified by the Second Continental Congress. The document unified the thirteen colonies and declared them independent from the British Empire. After winning the Revolutionary War, American lawmakers returned to Independence Hall to write the United States Constitution, which was ratified in 1787 and laid out the hallmarks of the American system of democratic governance. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have inspired leaders around the world to adopt a similar system of representative government.

Sitting in the center of Philadelphia, across the street from the Liberty Bell Center (a museum that houses the cracked bell that once hung in the tower of the State House), Independence Hall is the grand lady of Chestnut Street. Visited by about a million people each year, this building is one of the few tangible structures that represent the now global concepts of liberty, freedom, and democracy.

A City on the Move

Today, the National Park Service controls Independence Hall and its fifty-five acre park. It has been widely praised for its careful management of the World Heritage Site, which includes periodic restoration to the highest standards of historic accuracy. In 2010, the Tower of Independence Hall began a fourteen month rehabilitation project. This included replacing damaged brick masonry, roof shingles, and exposed decorative elements like window sashes. The project also provided more structural support braces and replaced the Tower’s lightning protection system. This kind of regular maintenance is necessary to maintain the world’s historic monuments.

In 2015, CyArk worked with Nokia to digitally scan the entire historic district of Philadelphia. As the first in a series of city scans, this project functioned as a technological experiment to capture vast amounts of data in a spatial system. Apart from recording important details of individual buildings and sites, this type of scanning also allows us to visualize how the different parts of a city interact with each other and how they change over time. 


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