Philadelphia is a living gallery for more than 300 years of architectural history—and not all of it is made from the ubiquitous red brick. More than 100 buildings are designated National Historic Landmarks, with outstanding examples of practically every notable style represented. Renowned architects who have left their marks on the city include William Strickland, Frank Furness, Daniel Burnham, George Howe, Louis I. Kahn, Robert Venturi, I. M. Pei, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Cesar Pelli.
Those who are interested in learning more about the city’s architecture should take one of the Open House tours offered by the Friends of Independence or the Architectural Landmarks tours offered by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. And anyone who appreciates architecture should visit the Athenaeum, the world’s premier landmark devoted to American architecture 1800–1945.
For still more information and background, Philadelphia Architects and Buildings maintains an excellent online database (www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/) with a wealth of information about the city’s architectural gems and the innovative architects who were responsible for them.
Many of the city’s very first settlers lived in caves built into the riverbanks, followed by log cabins, which were introduced by early Swedes. People soon began building with wood and brick, with the first brick house completed in 1684. Old Swedes’ (Gloria Dei) Church, completed in 1700, is the oldest surviving building in Philadelphia today. The church reflects the Quaker aesthetic for simplicity and symmetry, as do many of the city’s first buildings that still survive. The largest of the Quaker-style buildings is the Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Old City.
The 18th century brought an array of new, more elaborate styles in architecture, including Georgian and federal. Many of the structures in Old City and Society Hill today represent some variation of these styles. Named after several generations of kings of England named George, the Georgian style was characterized by proportion and balance. Classic examples are made of red brick with white trim, including Independence Hall and Christ Church. The Carpenters Company was formed in 1724 to instruct builders on these new styles of architecture.
After the Revolution, there was a deliberate move away from English style in many regards, including architecture. An influx of new styles came to Philadelphia, including Classical revival, seen in the First Bank of the United States, and Romanesque revival, as can be seen in Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.
The federal style was named for the federal period in American history, when it gained popularity. During the late 18th century, the founders of the United States, after rejecting the authority of the English crown, were inspired by the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome. Marked by an intricate interior and a simple, conservative exterior, one of the city’s best examples of federal architecture is the Central Pavilion of Pennsylvania Hospital, completed in 1805. The American eagle was a popular emblem, and many buildings you’ll see with this mark were built during this period. The style became a symbol of the nation’s wealthy and elite.
The beginning of the 19th century brought the Greek revival style to Philadelphia, along with leading architects William Strickland and Robert Mills. Strickland was responsible for the Second Bank of the United States, modeled on the Parthenon, and the impressive Merchant’s Exchange, which offered a modern twist on classic Greek styles.
The early 1800s also saw the start of a new housing innovation: the inexpensive and efficient row house. The first row houses in the United States were part of Carstairs Row (now Jewelers’ Row), named for builder and architect Thomas Carstairs. They provided quality housing not yet available in cities like New York and Boston. The style became known as “Philadelphia rows.” As the city industrialized in the 1830s and 1840s, the Delaware riverfront was lined with tenements, warehouses, and factories, some of which survive today as converted “luxury lofts.”
John Haviland also worked during this period; his 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary was the first structure that so deliberately melded structure and function, and he also designed the Atwater Kent Museum, Walnut Street Theatre, St. George’s Episcopal Church, and the University of the Art’s Hamilton Hall.
As the 19th century progressed, commercial buildings increased in size and splendor, and architects like William L. Johnson and G. P. Cummings made their marks. Heavily ornamented Victorian and Gothic revival architecture came into vogue, bringing ornate homes, especially to West Philadelphia and Center City. Two large-scale examples include the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ main building, both designed by architect Frank Furness.
City Hall deserves a paragraph of its own in Philadelphia’s—and the world’s—architectural history. Designed by John MacArthur Jr., the mammoth structure is one of the finest examples of French Second Empire architecture in the world. It is the country’s largest governmental building and the world’s tallest masonry building. Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder created more than 250 statues to adorn the edifice, including the 37-foot-tall statue of William Penn. Construction of City Hall took 30 years (1871–1901), due in part to municipal corruption and cost overruns. Originally intended to be the world’s tallest building at 548 feet, it had already been superseded by the Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument by the time it was completed. Just north of it stands the Norman-Romanesque–style Masonic Temple and the Gothic revival–style Arch Street United Methodist Church, also built during this period.
The largest suspension bridge in the world at the time, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge was built in Philadelphia in 1926. A few years later, the building that now houses the Philadelphia Museum of Art was built by Julian Abele, who drew inspiration for the design while traveling in Greece. The Beaux Arts–style Free Library of Philadelphia was constructed on the Parkway in 1927, followed by 30th Street Station and the Franklin Institute in the 1930s.
A notable Philadelphia skyscraper is the PSFS Building. Built in 1932 by William Lescaze and his partner George Howe, it is considered America’s first International-style skyscraper. West of City Hall, the office mega-complex Penn Center rises on the site of former train tracks (and Furness’s Broad Street Station) while I. M. Pei’s 1963 Society Hill Towers stand as modernist beacons in colonial Society Hill. Liberty Place was the first skyscraper built taller than City Hall, in the late 1980s.
Philadelphia remains at the cutting-edge of architecture. The magnificent, modern Kimmel Center on the Avenue of the Arts opened in 2001, and west of the Schuylkill, the 28-story glass Cira Center by Cesar Pelli was completed in 2005. The Comcast Center is the tallest building between New York and Chicago at 975 feet. As of its 2008 completion, it is also the tallest LEED platinum-certified building in the United States, in keeping with the trend towards more environmentally friendly building practices.
© Karrie Gavin from Moon Philadelphia, 1st Edition