Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Charlene Mires

Lafayette’s Tour

[caption id="attachment_21033" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Handkerchief printed with scene of Independence Hall Public fascination with the visit of Lafayette sparked a lively industry in mass-produced souvenirs, such as this handkerchief depicting his arrival at Independence Hall. (Winterthur Museum)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19346" align="alignright" width="251"]Marquis de Lafayette rose to the rank of Major General in the Continental Army. During his service he and George Washington would form a life-long friendship. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Marquis de Lafayette rose to the rank of Major General in the Continental Army. During his service, he and George Washington formed a life-long friendship. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

When the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), a French hero of the American Revolution, returned to the United States in 1824-25, Philadelphians joined in a wave of nationwide affection for the nobleman who had volunteered for service in the Continental Army at the age of 19. Lafayette’s return to the region stirred increasing regard for preserving relics of the Revolution, especially the old Pennsylvania State House, which began to acquire a new name: Independence Hall.

Lafayette (Marie Joseph Paul Yyves Roch Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette) returned to the United States as the “nation’s guest” by invitation of his longtime friend President James Monroe (1758-1831). With the Declaration of Independence nearly fifty years in the past, Lafayette represented a generation of heroes soon to pass from living history into memory. Throughout the United States, his presence touched off elaborate preparations, pageantry, and a lively market for Lafayette keepsakes. The tour, originally intended to last four months, triggered such intense public enthusiasm that Lafayette stayed for thirteen months and traveled to all twenty-four states in the nation. He visited Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) at Monticello and the Mount Vernon tomb of his general and friend George Washington (1732-99).

[caption id="attachment_19343" align="alignright" width="225"]Frank Johnson, a famous composer and band leader, performed with his African-American band to entertain Lafayette during his last night in Philadelphia. (Historical Society of  Pennsylvania) Frank Johnson, a famous musician, composer, and band leader, performed with his African American band at the "Lafayette Ball," a major social event during Lafayette's last night in Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Lafayette came to the Philadelphia region twice, near the beginning and end of his tour. In September 1824, after arriving in New York from France, he journeyed through northern New Jersey to Trenton, where he crossed the covered bridge over the Delaware River to Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Entertained at an evening ball at Holmesburg and then lodged overnight at the Frankford Arsenal, the next day Lafayette entered Philadelphia in a carriage pulled by six cream-colored horses and accompanied by a three-mile-long procession of citizens on horseback, public officials from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, military units, veterans of the Revolution, tradesmen, and farmers from the countryside. The parade followed a route carefully planned to pass impressive neighborhoods and landmarks and cheering throngs of onlookers on the way to the old State House. Temporary triumphal arches along the route ushered the marchers and riders through Northern Liberties into the city.

For nearly two months, Philadelphians had planned for the moment of Lafayette’s arrival. For his reception, an arrangements committee commissioned architect William Strickland (1788-1854) to refurbish the room in the old State House where independence had been declared. By that time in a state of neglect, the east room on the building’s first floor attracted renewed attention as it became transformed for the occasion. As Philadelphians acquired new mahogany chairs and sofas, draperies, and carpets to create a suitably lavish reception, they also coined a name for the room: the “Hall of Independence” or “Independence Hall.” Originally applied only to the first-floor room where independence had been declared, over subsequent decades the name became applied to the building as a whole.

Lafayette’s reception in the Hall of Independence, during which he and Philadelphia’s mayor exchanged greetings and reflected on the historic events that transpired where they stood, established a precedent for other nineteenth-century guests, from dignitaries to visiting fire companies. Lafayette’s eight-day visit also created new attachments to the memory of the American Revolution for thousands of schoolchildren who assembled in the State House Yard to be in his presence, for residents who attended a celebratory civic ball at the Chestnut Street Theatre, and for those who adorned themselves and their homes with mass-produced souvenirs. “Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet,” the Saturday Evening Post commented in the aftermath. “We wrap our bodies in Lafayette coats during the day, and repose between Lafayette blankets at night.”

[caption id="attachment_19345" align="alignright" width="185"]Dutch artist Ary Sheffer presented Congress with this full-length portrait of Lafayette. Lafayette so admired the portrait that he distributed engravings of the painting throughout the United States. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Dutch artist Ary Sheffer presented Congress with this full-length portrait of Lafayette. Lafayette enjoyed the painting so much that he distributed copies of it wherever he stopped during his stay. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Departing Philadelphia, Lafayette traveled by steamboat on the Delaware River to Chester, Pennsylvania, which celebrated him with a parade and banquet, and from there to Wilmington, Delaware. When he returned to the region for a somewhat longer, but quieter, stay near the end of his tour in July 1825, his itinerary included visits to Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill. On the way south for departure from Washington, he stopped in West Chester (where an estimated ten thousand people gathered to witness his procession) and joined military units and aged veterans in a tour of the area of the Battle of Brandywine, where he had been wounded during the Philadelphia campaign.

Lafayette’s tour left lasting effects around the United States in the form of towns, counties, colleges, and streets bearing his name, projects to create monuments, and new regard for material relics of the American Revolution. In Philadelphia, historically-minded citizens formed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1824. Some who served on the arrangements committee for Lafayette’s visit mobilized again 1828 to replace the steeple on Independence Hall, which had lacked this distinctive feature since the original rotted away more than four decades before. The new steeple served contemporary needs for a clock and bell, but the Philadelphia City Councils insisted that it must resemble as closely as possible the building as it stood at the time of the American Revolution.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.


Philadelphia has been a tourist destination since leisure travel emerged as a common pastime for the middle and upper classes in the nineteenth century. By the twenty-first century, the region’s economy depended heavily on tourism to Philadelphia and nearby destinations such as the Brandywine Valley, Valley Forge, and the Jersey and Delaware shores. Historic sites of the colonial era and American Revolution attracted many travelers, but these assets also created a challenge for promoters seeking to portray Philadelphia as not just a place of historical interest but as a lively, exciting place to spend a vacation.

[caption id="attachment_20445" align="alignright" width="300"]a color lithograph of people viewing the Fairmount Waterworks and Collosus Bridge from Harding's Hotel The Fairmount Water Works was an early tourist draw whose scenic appearance and scientific innovation appealed to early nineteenth century tastes. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

“Tourism” in the sense of travel for no reason other than seeing the sights did not become a phenomenon in the United States until the 1820s, when improvements in transportation and accommodations made touring possible for people with wealth and leisure time. Precedents existed, however. From the time of Philadelphia’s founding in the 1680s, the growing city attracted individual travelers and migrants from other colonies and abroad. Visitors also sought out nearby resorts such as the healthful mineral waters at Yellow Springs in Chester County and Bristol Springs in Bucks County, both popular destinations in the eighteenth century. By the 1810s, Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey began to develop into a resort for affluent families who traveled on ships from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Trenton, and Baltimore to relax in hotels by the sea.

In the early nineteenth century, tourists favored sites of pastoral scenic beauty more than city destinations, so it is likely that Philadelphia sent out more tourists than it received. Nevertheless, the city began to develop an infrastructure for tourism, including the city’s first full-fledged hotel, the United States Hotel, opened in 1828 on Chestnut Street opposite the Second Bank of the United States. Philadelphia publishers also began to produce guides to the city’s sights. Tourists who came to Philadelphia sought out new institutions and immersive experiences, as they did in other major cities. They toured innovations such as the Fairmount Water Works and Eastern State Penitentiary and visited the monumental Laurel Hill Cemetery. They took in exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts or Charles Willson Peale’s museum, attended theatrical performances, and explored nature in public gardens and along the Wissahickon Valley. Often they attended worship services at a variety of churches or observed court proceedings. Some also sought out places with historic associations, but the old Pennsylvania State House, where Americans declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, remained in use for courts and other purposes. Only gradually over the nineteenth century did this building become known as Independence Hall and fully presented to the public as a historic site.

In the 1830s, railroads began to open tourism to the emerging middle class. Although far from comfortable for long-distance travel, by 1840 rail lines connected the Mid-Atlantic region to most of the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire to the Carolinas. Railroads helped to open the tourism potential of the Jersey Shore, as entrepreneurs in the 1850s extended rails from Philadelphia and New York to new resorts such as Atlantic City and expanded links to established destinations such as Cape May. Railroads also enabled countryside excursions from Philadelphia to the Brandywine Valley and Valley Forge.

Vacations of One or Two Weeks

The “vacation” of one or two weeks a year became more common among middle-class Americans from the 1850s through the 1870s, with the time away from work often spent at resort hotels. This increased tourism to seaside areas such as the Jersey Shore but did not significantly benefit Philadelphia and other cities, where travel continued to be dominated by people doing business or visiting family and friends. Vacationers who opted for touring, rather than resort stays, often sought to see as many sights as possible within their limited time. This created a challenge for Philadelphia that persisted for decades: leisure travelers seldom stayed very long in any one place, limiting their economic impact.

[caption id="attachment_20447" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white illustration of visitors examining a wall paper printing press at the Centennial Exhibition The Centennial Exhibition brought crowds of tourists from around the world into Philadelphia to marvel at new technologies. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia helped to usher in a new era for urban tourism when it staged the first full-scale world’s fair in the United States, the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. World’s fairs, enormously popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gave tourists an incentive to visit the host cities and fulfilled desires to pack many experiences into a short vacation. The Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park attracted more than 10 million visitors. Although that number included local residents and repeat visits, the extent of out-of-town tourists is suggested by the construction of eight temporary hotels adjacent to the fairgrounds, the largest offering 1,325 rooms, to supplement fifty-one downtown hotels each with fifty rooms or more. Railroads also encouraged tourism by offering special fares. World’s fair tourists included not only adults but also entire families.

As a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Centennial highlighted the dual character of Philadelphia that persisted into the twentieth century as an opportunity but also a challenge for promoters. The region had historic sites of the American Revolution in abundance, and their appeal could not be denied. However, Philadelphia also was a booming industrial city seeking to highlight modern progress more than the past. In 1876, Independence Hall attracted visitors with new exhibits styled as the “National Museum” and took center stage for the Fourth of July, but the world’s fair of modern marvels drew visitors’ greatest attention. By the turn of the century, Philadelphia’s new City Hall (completed in 1901) allowed government functions to finally move out of Independence Hall, leaving it to serve solely historic purposes for the first time. The Betsy Ross House in the 400 block of Arch Street also became an attraction after a fund-raising campaign in the 1890s saved it from demolition. However, City Hall helped to pull civic activity westward to Broad Street’s emerging corridor of skyscrapers and the city’s grandest new hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (opened in 1904). When the nation celebrated the Declaration of Independence again in 1926, organizers of the Sesquicentennial International Exhibition erected a faux-Colonial “High Street” amid the attractions in South Philadelphia and a giant electrified Liberty Bell across Broad Street. Visiting authentic eighteenth-century landmarks required a side trip away from the fair to the oldest sections of the city.

[caption id="attachment_20446" align="alignright" width="300"]A color lithograph of the interior of Independence Hall in the mid-nineteenth century showing visitors in the newly-renovated building Independence Hall transformed from a government building into a museum into the centerpiece of a national historical park. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The forces of past and present combined to reshape the tourism landscape of Philadelphia and the nearby region in the first half of the twentieth century. City planners and architects, seeking alternatives to deteriorating urban conditions, carried out projects such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (built 1917-26) and joined with patriotic citizens to support creation of Independence National Historical Park (authorized by Congress in 1948). These projects, requiring demolition of many blocks of eighteenth and nineteenth-century structures, created new, attractive cultural districts and settings for the large-scale events that became a hallmark of Philadelphia later in the century. On a smaller scale, meanwhile, the historic preservation movement sought to sustain material connections to the past in an era of rapid change. Preservation efforts assured that Philadelphia would retain Elfreth’s Alley, the 1765 home of Mayor Samuel Powel (1738-93), and other colonial-era sites in the city and region. Preservationists intervened to prevent the former home of the Franklin Institute, a Greek Revival building designed by John Haviland (1792-1852), from being demolished for a parking lot; instead, radio manufacturer Atwater Kent (1873-1949) bought the structure at 15 S. Seventh Street and gave it to the city for a local history museum (opened in 1941 as the Atwater Kent Museum, later renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent). The inheritors of a number of private estates in the region also created public museums and gardens, notably the DuPont family’s Longwood Gardens and Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Government Looks to Leisure Travel

[caption id="attachment_20500" align="alignright" width="188"]a black and white photograph of tourists sightseeing in open-cab vehicles on Chestnut Street Tourists at the turn of the twentieth century could enjoy sightseeing in a new invention, the automobile. These tourists paid one dollar for a round trip sightseeing tour of the city and Fairmount Park. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

With an increasing stock of attractions and with tourism growing, first from improvements in comfort on the railroads and then with the advent of automobiles, business and government leaders moved to capitalize on the economic potential of leisure travel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American cities competed vigorously for industrial and business opportunities. Groups such as the Philadelphia Board of Trade had long promoted the city as a meeting place for national conventions. Yet Philadelphia lagged behind Boston, another rival similarly stocked with historic sites, in attracting leisure travelers. In the 1920s, with urging from the hotel industry, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce devoted increasing effort to promoting tourism and school field trips to historic sites. In 1929, the Chamber’s Convention and Exhibition Bureau became the Convention and Tourist Bureau; renamed the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1945, the organization became an independent entity in 1951.

By mid-century, tourism was not only a local concern but also the dedicated purpose of agencies in federal and state governments. Thus Philadelphia became embedded in a regional network of tourist sites managed by government agencies as well as private operators, connected by the movement of tourists among sites they wished to see. State agencies invested in advertising to potential tourists, erecting historical markers along highways, and managing sites such as Washington’s Crossing on both sides of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County; Valley Forge in Chester County (which became a national historical park in 1976); and Batsto Village in South Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_20450" align="alignright" width="188"]a color illustration of a horse-drawn carriage and Independence Hall in front of a silhouette of the Philadelphia skyline In the mid-twentieth century, Philadelphia was advertised as a destination for both historical destinations and modern attractions, as seen in the cover of this Philadelphia Transportation Company guidebook. (Private collection)[/caption]

The years following World War II propelled a surge of tourism made possible by automobiles and driven by the popularity of family vacations. At a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union placed a high value on the “American way of life,” families sought to instill civic values in their children with trips to historic sites and symbols, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The construction of Independence National Historical Park underway during the 1950s did not deter vacationing families, and the reform administrations of Mayors Joseph S. Clark (1901-88) and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) viewed tourism as integral to revitalizing the city in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. In 1951, a new city charter established the Office of City Representative, whose responsibilities included promoting Philadelphia as well as representing the mayor at ceremonial events.

During the 1950s Pennsylvania helped promote Philadelphia with depictions of families visiting Independence Hall on the state’s official tourism map, but Philadelphia boosters sought to modernize the city’s appeal. In 1960 the Convention and Visitors Bureau opened a new headquarters and visitor center resembling a space-age flying saucer near the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a mile west of the “historic district.” In addition to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City Representative, tourism development efforts included a Philadelphia Area Council on Tourism (PACT) created in 1961 by Dilworth but not fully funded by City Council. The agencies sometimes worked together, but at other times operated without coordination. Despite their efforts, a 1967 study found that visitors considered Philadelphia an above-average place to visit historic sites, but not an especially exciting place for a vacation. Philadelphians themselves seemed to need to be convinced of the city’s charms, as evidenced by a billboard and slogan for a Chamber of Commerce event in 1972: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”

The Bicentennial Quandary

Although the approaching 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence offered a new opportunity to capitalize on the region’s history, local ambitions competed with decentralized, nationwide celebrations. Fears of urban unrest stoked by Mayor Frank Rizzo (1920-91) and an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease undercut Philadelphia’s appeal. Nevertheless, Bicentennial projects expanded the region’s array of tourism attractions and services, including the opening of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (later renamed the African American Museum in Philadelphia), the National Museum of Jewish American History, the Mummers Museum, a new Visitor Center for Independence National Historical Park, and a modern pavilion to show off the Liberty Bell.

[caption id="attachment_20452" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of Independence Mall as viewed from above and behind Independence Hall A wave of post-war patriotism sparked the construction of Independence Mall, which made Independence Hall and other nearby landmarks more accessible to tourists by demolishing other residential and commercial properties in the vicinity. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)[/caption]

The sense that Philadelphia was not doing enough to benefit from tourist dollars persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, an era when globalization made place-marketing a key strategy for localities seeking to differentiate themselves and attract investment. Philadelphia’s painful transition from industrial powerhouse to post-industrial city raised the stakes. To meet the challenge, Mayor Edward G. Rendell (b. 1944) created the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC, later rebranded Visit Philadelphia) in 1996 to target leisure travelers. Operating separately from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the new agency took a regional approach to “Philadelphia and Its Countryside” and formed partnerships with similar organizations in the region: the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Board, Visit Bucks County, and the Brandywine Conference and Visitors Bureau, among others. Beyond this five-county Pennsylvania-based collaboration, similar place-marketing organizations operated in South Jersey, including the South Jersey Tourism Corporation and the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, and in Delaware. The tourism marketers diversified their appeals beyond the traditional Caucasian family vacationer by reaching out to African Americans (through the Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, formed in 1987), gays and lesbians (“Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay” campaign, GPTMC, 2003), and international travelers. Seeking to advance Philadelphia as an international brand, a Global Philadelphia Association formed in 2010 and five years later succeeded in making Philadelphia the first United States member of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, composed of cities with sites on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (in Philadelphia's case, Independence Hall).

From the 1990s into the early decades of the twenty-first century, the Philadelphia region’s tourism industry created an increasingly elaborate and interdependent infrastructure to attract leisure travelers and convince them to make more than a brief stop to see the Liberty Bell on their way between Washington, D.C., and New York City. With millions of dollars in investment from government, private foundations, and individual donors, underused plazas at Independence National Historical Park evolved into a civic campus with a new exhibit hall for the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, and an Independence Visitor Center to promote the region. Waterfront development in Camden featured the New Jersey State Aquarium, a concert amphitheater, a minor league ball park, and the Battleship New Jersey. Hotels proliferated, especially within walking distance of the Pennsylvania Convention Center (opened in 1993 and expanded in 2011). Temple University established a School of Tourism and Hospitality Management in 1998, and the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides (formed in 2008) launched a training and certification program in 2011. In the Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia, historic house museums banded together as Historic Germantown and promoted “Freedom’s Backyard.”

Broadening the City’s Appeal to Tourists

[caption id="attachment_20451" align="alignright" width="300"]The Benjamin Franklin Parkway boasts a number of Philadelphia's most popular tourist attractions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute. It was built as part of a large-scale urban beautification effort. (Map by R. Estes for VisitPhilly.com) The Benjamin Franklin Parkway boasts a number of Philadelphia's most popular tourist attractions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute. It was built as part of a large-scale urban beautification effort. (Map by R. Estes for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Throughout the region, historic sites, museums, and other cultural organizations sought to attract local residents as well as visitors with varieties of programming. Places that appealed to nineteenth-century tourists because they were new and innovative, such as Eastern State Penitentiary and the Fairmount Water Works, gained new purposes as historic places and centers for education. Tourists could focus their attention on Philadelphia’s place in the nation’s history, to be sure, but the appeal of the city and the region also built upon the arts, on museums and sites focusing on science and medicine, on sports and recreation, on attractions and activities for children, and on a surge of innovative restaurants attracting national and international attention. Beyond the annual celebration of the Fourth of July–expanded and branded as Welcome America–tourism swelled during such mega-events as concerts (from Live Aid in 1985 to the Labor Day-weekend Made in America music festival introduced in 2012), the visits of two popes (John Paul II in 1979 and Francis in 2015), the annual Philadelphia Flower Show and similar extravaganzas, and recurring sports rivalries such as the Army-Navy game.

As a major sector of the region’s post-industrial economy, tourism could be vulnerable to setbacks during times of recession or national emergency, such as the attacks on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001. Despite these challenges, tourism to the region appeared to have reached new heights by the second decade of the twenty-first century. For the period from 1997 to 2014, Visit Philadelphia reported a 90 percent increase in overnight leisure travelers to its five-county Pennsylvania region, from 7.3 million to 13.9 million (a total exceeding the 10 million visitor count of the Centennial in 1876). Economically, according to the agency’s calculations, this translated to support for 92,000 jobs and $655 million in local and state tax revenue. Once a casual pastime of the wealthy, tourism in the twenty-first century became a more widespread and diverse phenomenon but took place within the realms of sophisticated place-marketing and global competition.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She is the author of Independence Hall in American Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) and Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations (NYU Press, 2013).

Columbus Day

[caption id="attachment_12850" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a white statue of Christopher Columbus standing on a base. The statue is surrounded by a black fence and and grass, with trees in the background. On the fence are the white outlines of three sailing ships. The annual Columbus Day parade in Philadelphia concludes near this statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Observed on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day in the Philadelphia region gained prominence as Italian immigrant communities grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. By commemorating the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) in the New World, Italian-Americans embraced the navigator as their countryman, celebrated Italian culture, and called attention to their American loyalty and identity. While the practices and places for observing Columbus Day changed over time, the holiday in Philadelphia and its suburbs retained a distinctively Italian flavor even as Columbus became a controversial figure in American history.

The first major anniversary of Columbus to be celebrated in the United States, 1792, passed quietly in Philadelphia although not without notice. While Boston and New York hosted public events, in Philadelphia the nationally circulated Daily American Advertiser published an oration about Columbus delivered earlier at Princeton College in New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_12860" align="alignright" width="300"]Members of the Jesters New Year's Brigade march down Broad Street on October 12, 2014, during Philadelphia's annual Columbus Day Parade. Dozens of organizations, many of them rooted in the Italian-American heritage of South Philadelphia, take part in the parade that ends at Marconi Plaza. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia) Flag-bearing revelers pay tribute to Christopher Columbus as they march down Broad Street on October 12, 2014, during Philadelphia's Columbus Day parade. Dozens of groups, many rooted in the Italian-American heritage of South Philadelphia, take part. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The reputation of Columbus as an American hero grew during the nineteenth century following the 1827 publication of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, by Washington Irving. It was not until the 1860s, however, that Columbus Day emerged as an annual celebration among Italian immigrant communities, first in New York in 1866 and in Philadelphia by 1869. That year, the Societá di Unione e Fratellanza Italiana, a mutual aid society in South Philadelphia, held the first in a series of annual balls on October 12 and made honoring Columbus one of its central activities. In 1876, Italian-Americans dedicated a monument of Columbus in Fairmount Park as their contribution to the Centennial celebration of the United States.

Italian-Americans embraced Columbus because of the place of his birth, the city-state of Genoa, within the region that became part of the Italian nation formed in 1861. Although Columbus’s birthplace has at times been debated by scholars and others, nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States did not question their shared heritage with the “discoverer” of America. They also identified with Columbus on the basis of shared religion, and the Catholic Church became a major proponent of commemorating Columbus for his role in extending Catholicism to the New World. 

The ethnic and religious character of the holiday was clear in Philadelphia in 1892, the four-hundredth anniversary of the first Columbus voyage, which came in the midst of a surge of Italian immigration. In addition to celebrations in Italian neighborhoods, the Columbus commemoration activities that year included a torchlight parade of Catholic organizations on Broad Street, a Solemn Pontifical Mass at the Cathedral on Logan Square, and a performance by parochial schoolchildren at the Academy of Music.

As an expression of American identity, Columbus Day had a patriotic spirit that combined with its ties to religion and ethnicity. As state governments began to grant legal status to the holiday in the first decades of the twentieth century, participation widened to include public officials, office-seekers, and military units. Patriotic overtones were especially apparent in Philadelphia during the Cold War era as parades and ceremonies at Independence Hall from the 1950s through the 1970s symbolically linked the arrival of Columbus in America with the founding of the republic.

Monuments to Christopher Columbus have anchored and sometimes shifted the location of Columbus Day observances. The Columbus monument dedicated in Fairmount Park in 1876 served as a focal point for commemoration for the next century, until the statue was moved to Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia during the bicentennial year of 1976. Following its dedication there by Mayor Frank Rizzo (1920-91), the monument’s new location in the city’s traditionally Italian neighborhood became the destination of the annual Columbus Day parade. In Camden, a Columbus monument erected in 1915 by the Sons of Italy in Forest Hill Park (later renamed Farnham Park) played a similar role as a site of commemoration in the first half of the twentieth century. A Columbus monument in Norristown, Pennsylvania, dedicated in 1992 after years of effort, from that point forward became the centerpiece for celebration each year in the Montgomery County seat.

[caption id="attachment_12849" align="alignright" width="575"]A color photograph of Penn's Landing, with ships on the water, a boardwalk with people walking on it, green trees and a steel obelisk above the treetops on the right side of the image. A older sailing ship is in the background of the image, along with more trees and buildings. The Christopher Columbus monument (right) was constructed in the shape of a large, stainless-steel obelisk, to memorialize the 500th anniversary of Columbus reaching the New World. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.)[/caption]

By the time of the five-hundredth anniversary of the first Columbus voyage in 1992, celebrating the navigator became more controversial and contentious. When the Philadelphia City Council voted in 1989 to rename a portion of Delaware Avenue as Columbus Boulevard, Native Americans protested that Columbus represented conquest of their land and neighborhood groups resisted the loss of a familiar street name. In 1992 Penn’s Landing gained a new, modern obelisk to honor Columbus, but on the day of its unveiling a group dressed as Native Americans splattered the monument with red paint and painted over “Columbus Boulevard” street signs.

While the history and reputation of Columbus became a matter of national and international debate, the region’s tourism promoters sought to draw visitors with a year of events called “Neighbors in the New World,” to emphasize multicultural unity and progress. Many museums and organizations embraced the theme, but others such as the annual American Indian Arts Festival at the Rankokus Reservation in Burlington County, New Jersey, stressed the cultural traditions that Columbus’s arrival endangered. 

Adding to the layers of layers of multiculturalism and conflict attached to Columbus Day by the early twenty-first century, monuments to Columbus became flashpoints of controversy during the social justice uprisings of 2020. Camden removed its Columbus monument from  Farnham Park, and demonstrators converged on the monument in South Philadelphia to protest its presence while others assembled to protect it. The City of Philadelphia enclosed the monument in a box until its future could be determined. Defenders of the monument echoed the continuing tradition of Columbus Day in South Philadelphia as a celebration of Italian heritage and the contributions of immigrants to Greater Philadelphia and the nation.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Industrial Neighborhoods

The growth and decline of industry in the Philadelphia region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also shaped the character of many of its neighborhoods. Compact industrial neighborhoods originated at a time when the lack of public transportation made it necessary for workers to live within walking distance of the factories. These row house blocks became home to generations of working-class residents, but as industry declined in the second half of the twentieth century, communities near shuttered factories faced challenges of economic and social dislocation.

[caption id="attachment_11786" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white aerial image depicting a series of factory buildings surrounded by residential houses, businesses, and churches. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, employed hundreds of workers who lived in the immediate area around the factory. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The region’s earliest industrial neighborhoods were mill towns near waterways, a location necessary for water-powered factories. For example, Manayunk, which became a neighborhood of Philadelphia with the city’s consolidation in 1854, originated as a textile village along the Schuylkill River in Roxborough Township. Only lightly settled during the early nineteenth century, the area experienced rapid development after 1819, when the Schuylkill Navigation Company completed construction of the Flat Rock Canal and dam. By 1828 the power produced by the new waterfall from canal to river had attracted ten textile mills, which touched off a population and housing boom. The textile industry attracted English, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants, and a community formed, featuring houses for mill workers and factory owners, churches, schools, expanded mills, and improved roads. By the 1830s the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad connected the village to Philadelphia. With urbanization, residents of Manayunk—grandly touted as “the Manchester of America”—also experienced problems of the early industrial era, including instability of work, health hazards, and high rates of poverty.

From the early to middle nineteenth century, access to waterways and rail lines dictated the locations of mills and factories, which in turn created or attracted the housing necessary to sustain a workforce. In Kingsessing (later Southwest Philadelphia), for example, the village of Paschalville developed in 1810 near the Passmore Textile Mill on Cobbs Creek. In Kensington, home to mills, factories, and shipyards near the Delaware River, the population more than tripled between 1820 and 1840, from 7,000 to 22,000 residents. In Camden prior to the Civil War, factory owners built housing for workers close to their waterfront mills, sawmills, lumberyards, and railroad companies. Near Camden’s Kaighn’s Point manufacturing district, developer Richard Fetters (1791-1863) built inexpensive houses so enticing that laborers moved across the river from Philadelphia.

Homes in Shadow of Factories

In this era of the “walking city,” before streetcars or subways, industrial workers lived literally in the shadow of the factories. For most, home meant a two-story row house (or a rented room in a row house) on a street lined corner-to-corner with identical homes. The sounds and smells of the factories permeated these neighborhoods. Smokestacks sent pollution into the air, and smoke-belching locomotives shared the streets with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. The rapid growth of industry could easily overwhelm the capacity of the neighborhoods. By 1859, for example, the Manayunk Star and Roxborough Gazette described Manayunk as densely packed with overcrowded and poorly kept houses. 

[caption id="attachment_11783" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white image of a  series of brick row homes. THere is a factory with three smoke stacks further down the street. A telephone pole, a car, and a truck carrying pieces of wood are in front of the houses. Row houses were often selected as inexpensive designs that took up small amounts of space, resulting in views like this 1930s image of Camden, New Jersey, where a factory and a series of row houses could occupy the same city block. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Immigration and ethnicity also shaped life in the industrial neighborhoods. So many English immigrants settled in Kensington in the nineteenth century that it became known as “Little England.” German immigrants found work in the yarn and knitting mills and tanneries of Germantown. The Irish, who represented half of Philadelphia’s nineteenth-century foreign-born population, dominated areas such as Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Harrowgate and found work in a variety of trades, including textiles. Irish immigrants did much of the bricklaying for the industrial buildings, bridges, and railroads necessary for Philadelphia’s next industrial boom.

An alternative to the typically congested factory neighborhood developed in Northeast Philadelphia when Henry Disston (1819-78) transformed Tacony from a resort spot into a planned industrial community for his saw works and its workers. In the 1870s, Disston purchased a large tract of land in Tacony for a factory to replace his earlier plant in Northern Liberties and for worker housing. In contrast to the row house blocks elsewhere, the town plan for Tacony included lot sizes large enough to accommodate twin homes. Exercising paternalistic control over the district, Disston banned taverns, stables, and steam engines for industries other than the saw works, but he also provided a popular opera house, parks, banks, and a commercial corridor. The small community developed rapidly and gained a favorable reputation. In an 1886 report, the Pennsylvania secretary of Internal Affairs praised Tacony as the ideal manufacturing town.

By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered technology dramatically changed the nature and efficiency of industry and produced substantial growth in Philadelphia and other cities. The population of Philadelphia more than doubled from 565,529 in 1860 to 1,293,697 at the turn of the twentieth century as industry grew and intensified across North Philadelphia and in neighborhoods near the Delaware River waterfront. Many workers achieved modest prosperity, often enough to purchase their own homes. Elsewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania, Coatesville’s population expanded by 447 percent between 1850 and 1910, fueled largely by expansion of the powerful Lukens Steel Company. The increase at Chester was even greater,  from just over 1,000 residents in 1850 to 20,226 in 1890, an eleven-fold increase produced chiefly by its large shipbuilding industry. In South Jersey, Camden grew nearly as remarkably, from just 9,500 in 1850 to more than 58,000 by 1890 and 75,000 by 1900.

The Streetcar Revolution

During this era of industrial expansion, new forms of public transportation such as the streetcar (introduced in the 1850s and motorized in the 1890s) created the option of moving to less congested, less polluted suburbs for those who could afford the fares, generally five cents each way. The industrial neighborhoods they left behind absorbed a new wave of immigrants who arrived from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These trends – the departures and arrivals – produced neighborhoods segregated by income, with the poorest and most recent of the new arrivals crowding into areas closest to the factories. With housing in high demand, some of the finer factory-district homes vacated by mill owners or managers became boarding houses. At transit hubs, such as Kensington and Allegheny (K&A) in Philadelphia, business districts developed around banks, taverns, and shops, which served the neighborhoods as well as commuters.

The new immigrant groups changed the industrial neighborhoods and forged new social and cultural networks. They infused the neighborhoods with the cultures and traditions of their homelands, but public transportation also allowed them to connect with others of the same nationality elsewhere in the city. For the large number of Roman Catholics in the latest generation of immigrants, communities were defined not only by industrial geography but also by the boundaries of their parishes. As the Catholic population increased, the spires of new Catholic churches joined the factories as neighborhood landmarks.

[caption id="attachment_11787" align="alignright" width="234"]A map of Philadelphia that shows the roads, waterways, and the more prominent buildings. Districts are outlined with bolder lines, and parts of the map are color coded with red, blue, green, and yellow ink. This Home Owners Loan Company map of Philadelphia labels many of Philadelphia's industrial neighborhoods as undesirable by marking them in red ink.[/caption]

Philadelphia promoted itself as the “City of Homes” as well as the “Workshop of the World,” but over the first half of the twentieth century, the oldest industrial neighborhoods fell into decline. When the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) surveyed Philadelphia in the 1930s, it judged many row house blocks close to factories to be inherently undesirable because of nearby manufacturing, aging housing stock, and presence of immigrants. Color-coded in red and marked with the lowest grade of “D” on maps produced by the HOLC, these areas gained a stigma that discouraged investment and accelerated the deterioration of property even as new generations of residents occupied the homes.

 Already challenged, Philadelphia’s industrial neighborhoods experienced a dramatic shift in the second half of the twentieth century when industries closed or left the region, part of a national trend of industrial decline that affected traditional “Rust Belt” cities. While much of the white middle class moved to the suburbs, jobs left the industrial cities, poverty increased, and abandoned factories posed fire risks and offered havens for drug users. Crime and violence increased. In Philadelphia’s industrial neighborhoods, working-class white residents with few resources fought against integration longer than those who had settled the old streetcar suburbs. By the time they left, when they found the means to do so, the African Americans and Latinos who made up the next generation of occupants often found homes dilapidated and lacking in basic amenities. Similar trends occurred in industrial neighborhoods in smaller cities of the region, including Camden, Coatesville, Norristown, and Chester.

Aging Housing & Poverty

By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, residents in many of the former industrial neighborhoods faced problems such as poverty and limited educational opportunities while inhabiting aging, inadequate housing close to abandoned and hazardous industrial buildings. In many areas, important community institutions such as churches and schools closed or merged as the population declined.  At the same time, however, the compact nature of these districts, including their access to public transportation, guided efforts at renewal. With the aid of government programs such as tax credits for adaptive reuse of buildings, some of the former factories gained new life. Other efforts aimed to revitalize the former industrial areas by demolishing abandoned buildings, encouraging new social and commercial investment, and acting to reduce crime.

In Manayunk, revitalization came to Main Street, its primary commercial district. New restaurants moved into abandoned buildings, and businesses once again occupied previously empty storefronts. Developers and business owners promoted the neighborhood and attracted a new wave of residents. Some industrial buildings became apartment complexes and factories, while investors demolished others that could not be converted and replaced with condominium towers for the growing population. In Coatesville, officials embarked on a revitalization project of demolishing abandoned buildings to promote growth and investment. In Camden, attractions such as the New Jersey State Aquarium occupied former industrial sites, and Cooper Hospital and Rutgers University worked toward redeveloping parts of the downtown, although it proved to be a slow process. In Philadelphia, neighborhoods such as Old City and Northern Liberties experienced dramatic redevelopment. Developers adapted old industrial buildings as residences or workspaces or replaced them with new homes and apartments.

In the early twenty-first century, many of the region’s old industrial neighborhoods became just shadows of the vitality of earlier days. But remnants of the industrial neighborhoods remained, undergoing new transitions long after the golden age of industrialization.


Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Jacob Downs earned a master’s degree in history at Rutgers-Camden.

Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition (1913)

Held in 1913 in South Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with events and exhibits celebrating African American progress. At a time when the African American population in Philadelphia was growing and gaining in political influence, the event’s organizers also experienced a backlash of criticism as they secured $90,000 in state funds to stage the exposition.

In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, African Americans organized state and local events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation after Congress declined to support a national commemoration. Pennsylvania’s exposition took place at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, then undeveloped but designated on maps as “City Plaza” (later Marconi Plaza). Three exposition buildings, including a two-story, Beaux-Arts style Administration Building designed by African American architect C. Henry Wilson II (c. 1877-?), housed exhibits, a dining room, an auditorium, and a lecture and concert hall. The Emancipation Exposition opened on September 14, 1913, with a religious congress attended by more than 5,000 people. The next day, marching bands led a parade of floats down Broad Street from Girard Avenue to the exposition grounds, a four-mile route that presented a moving pageant of floats marking African American achievements on display for the white establishment occupying the city’s office buildings, hotels, and City Hall. The exposition continued through October 4 with events including education and medical congresses, athletic contests, and musical performances. An estimated 100,000 people visited the exhibits, which stressed advancements in education and industry.

[caption id="attachment_4446" align="alignright" width="300"]Political cartoon The Philadelphia Tribune depicted a long arm of prejudice extending from the offices of the North American to beat back exposition plans.(The Philadelphia Tribune)[/caption]


Racial Conflict

The exposition sparked racial conflict as white-owned Philadelphia newspapers, especially the North American, portrayed the event as a corrupt scheme to funnel public money into the pockets of the ruling Republican Party political machine. The state funding was obtained by the first African American state legislator to be elected in Pennsylvania, West Chester-born Harry W. Bass (1866-1917), a Republican, and exposition organizers rented an office from the Republican Party at 1352 Lombard Street, which the North American labeled “the notorious Senate Club.” Development in the area of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue would potentially benefit property owned in South Philadelphia by political boss William Vare (1867-1934). Such accusations were vigorously challenged by the African American-owned Philadelphia Tribune. Claims of corruption were never substantiated, but the exposition ran over budget by $4,000 and a sculptor and exposition workers protested afterward that they had not been paid.

After 1913, the site of the Emancipation Exposition was landscaped according to plans by the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, and in 1926 the resulting park became the location for the eighty-foot-tall, electrified Liberty Bell that served as gateway to the Sesquicentennial International Exposition. With South Philadelphia dominated by Italian immigrants and their descendants, the square in 1937 was renamed Marconi Plaza to honor Gugliermo Marconi (1874-1937), the recently deceased Italian inventor of wireless telegraphy. Later additions to the plaza, including the Christopher Columbus monument originally located in Fairmount Park, added to the site’s recognition as a place for Italian-American community and commemoration. The Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition of 1913, significant in its time for African American residents of Philadelphia, left little trace on the landscape or in published histories of Philadelphia.

Charlene Mires is the author of Independence Hall in American Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) and Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden.

National Freedom Day

Created in 1942 by a Philadelphian born in slavery, the annual National Freedom Day commemoration each February 1 calls attention to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ended slavery, and the continuing struggle for African American justice and equality.

[caption id="attachment_4462" align="alignright" width="274"]photograph of a group observing the Liberty Bell Shown in 1964, National Freedom Day is observed each year at the Liberty Bell. ( Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries )[/caption]

National Freedom Day began in the early months of U.S. involvement in World War II. Upon hearing President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) speak of the Four Freedoms, Richard R. Wright Sr. (1855-1947) wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune that Americans would not be free until everyone, including African Americans, shared fully in those freedoms.  Born into slavery in Georgia, Wright had moved to Philadelphia in 1921 following a long career as an educator, including the presidency of the State College of Industry for Colored Youth and Mechanic Arts in Savannah. Also well known as a political activist and journalist, he was among the thousands of African Americans who migrated north during and following World War I.  After joining several of his children in Philadelphia, including Richard R. Wright Jr. (1878-1967), later Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he co-founded the Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company at Nineteenth and South Streets.

Wright had a longstanding interest in commemoration, including involvement in the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a “Seventieth Anniversary Celebration of Negro Progress” in 1933, and creation of the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors (initially in Fairmount Park, later moved to Logan Circle). For National Freedom Day, he selected February 1 because it was the date when President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) signed the Congressional resolution proposing the Thirteenth Amendment. Promoted vigorously and nationally by Wright until his death in 1947, the earliest observances of National Freedom Day included parades and gatherings of delegates from around the nation at Independence Hall and Congress Hall. Such prominent speakers as Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) stressed harmony and good will while also calling attention to issues such as political participation and economic opportunity for African Americans. A consistent feature of the commemoration has been the laying of a wreath at the Liberty Bell.

National Holiday in 1949

Resonating with national and global concerns for freedom and civil rights in the early years of the Cold War, National Freedom Day became a national holiday in 1949 by proclamation of President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). Over time, however, the observance became more local, including the wreath-laying at the Liberty Bell, a banquet, scholarships awarded by the National Freedom Day Association, and observances by pupils at Richard R. Wright School, Twenty-Seventh and Dauphin Streets. Despite the continuing efforts of dedicated Philadelphians, National Freedom Day garnered less attention than Black History Month (observed in February since 1926), Martin Luther King Day (the third Monday in January), and Juneteenth (June 19), which commemorates the end of slavery on the date in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas.

In the twenty-first century, however, National Freedom Day gained increased visibility on the Internet as creators of Web sites posted and expanded upon lists of federally recognized holidays. In 2010, President Barack Obama (b. 1961) directed new attention to the Philadelphia-born event and linked it to a global cause when he designated the month of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, culminating with February 1 – National Freedom Day.

Charlene Mires is the author of Independence Hall in American Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) and Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden.

Independence National Historical Park

Encompassing fifty-four acres in Center City Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park preserves and provides access to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and other sites associated with the American Revolution and early American history. Authorized by Congress in 1948 in response to lobbying by Philadelphians, creation of the park transformed an aging commercial district into a series of plazas and landscaped squares and enhanced Philadelphia as a tourist destination.

[caption id="attachment_2875" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of Independence Hall A dense commercial district surrounded Independence Hall prior to the 1950s, as shown here in a 1929 photograph (PhillyHistory.org).[/caption]

Proposals to create expanded parks around Independence Hall originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Philadelphians, especially architects and members of hereditary societies, became unsettled by the contrast between the eighteenth-century landmark and the modern city. Their desires to safeguard the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution increased during the period of patriotism that accompanied World War I and World War II.

In 1942, Judge Edwin O. Lewis, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, formed the Independence Hall Association, a group dominated by civic-minded professionals who lobbied successfully for creation of a state park (Independence Mall) in the three blocks north of Independence Hall and a national park extending three additional blocks east. Later united as Independence National Historical Park, these six blocks were cleared of all structures not regarded as “historic,” leaving primarily eighteenth-century buildings as well as the Second Bank of the United States, notable for its role in the Bank War between President Andrew Jackson and the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle.

Park Service Takes Control

When Congress authorized the national park, it defined its purpose as “preserving historic structures and properties associated with the American Revolution and the founding and growth of the United States.”  This guided the work of the National Park Service, which took over administration of Independence Hall from the City of Philadelphia in 1951 and embarked on an extensive program of research and restoration.

The patriotism of the Cold War era, combined with the family focus created by the Baby Boom and the popularity of automobile vacationing, brought increasing waves of tourists to Philadelphia to see historic sites.  At the same time, the expanded open spaces around Independence Hall attracted local uses, including festivals and celebrations but also demonstrations and dissent.  Because of its association with the nation’s founding principles, Independence National Historical Park became a place for demonstrating for civil rights for African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians, and it was a site of sharp conflict between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators during the Vietnam War.

The demands of tourism created change in and around the park. To better serve the steady flow of visitors, in 1973 the National Park Service instituted a policy of guided tours of Independence Hall, ending a longtime local practice of passing informally through the building to touch the Liberty Bell. Because of the bell’s popularity, it was removed from Independence Hall to its own pavilion during the Bicentennial celebration of 1976 and then to the much larger, exhibit-filled Liberty Bell Center in 2003.

Campus of Tourism and Civic Education

For the Bicentennial, the park also gained a modern visitor center at Third and Chestnut Streets; this too was replaced by a larger Independence Visitor Center at Sixth and Market Streets, opened in 2001 and emphasizing not only the nearby historic sites but also visitor destinations throughout the region. The Liberty Bell Center and Independence Visitor Center, together with the National Constitution Center that opened in the northernmost block of the park in 2003, transformed the Cold War-era plazas of Independence Mall into a campus devoted to tourism and civic education.

[caption id="attachment_2885" align="alignright" width="300"] Archaeologists investigate the site of the President's House near the new Liberty Bell Center (background) in 2007.[/caption]

Additional changes resulted from local activism.  In 2002, an article in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography written by Edward Lawler Jr., a member of the Independence Hall Association, called attention to the history of the long-demolished President’s House and its site at Sixth and Market Streets near the planned Liberty Bell Center. Park management initially resisted the Independence Hall Association’s call to mark the footprint of this site of the Executive Branch under George Washington and John Adams, but Lawler’s article aroused public interest in the presence of slavery in Washington’s household.

Local historians, journalists, and African American groups such as Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and Generations Unlimited joined the pressure on the National Park Service to acknowledge the convergence of liberty and slavery on the doorstep of the Liberty Bell. In 2010, after long struggle, a memorial opened to mark the footprint of the house and inform visitors about the first “White House” and all of its occupants. By that time, new guidelines for interpretation also stressed that in addition to being an important site of the American Revolution, Independence National Historical Park offered opportunities to engage with the promise and paradox of liberty.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and author of Independence Hall in American Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Independence Hall

Originally the Pennsylvania State House, this eighteenth-century landmark associated with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution evolved from a workplace of government to a treasured shrine, tourist attraction, and World Heritage Site. Its history encompasses more than 275 years of struggles for freedom and public participation in creating, preserving, and debating the founding principles of the United States.

The history of Independence Hall dates to 1729, when the Pennsylvania Assembly authorized construction of “a House for the Assembly of this Province to meet in.” The site chosen, on Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, was then on the outskirts of Philadelphia and therefore pulled the city’s development westward.  In architectural style, the building that began construction in 1732 was Georgian—a common choice for American public buildings but also a statement of British elite culture at a time when Pennsylvanians were concerned about large in-migrations of Germans and Scots Irish.

[caption id="attachment_2792" align="alignright" width="214"]Scull and Heap Map of Philadelphia, 1752 The Pennsylvania State House, with its added tower and steeple, depicted on a 1752 map by Nicholas Scull and George Heap (Library of Congress).[/caption]

Assembly Speaker Andrew Hamilton led the committee to select the site and is credited with the building’s design, which closely resembled architectural pattern-book plans for English country houses. Edmund Woolley, a member of the Carpenters’ Company, supervised the craftsmen and laborers who built the structure, which was ready for use by the Assembly by 1736.  In 1749, the Assembly again called upon Woolley to add a tower and steeple to the south side of the building, thereby creating the building’s distinctive, church-like silhouette and providing a place to hang a new bell—the same bell that later became known as the Liberty Bell.

The Pennsylvania State House served many purposes in its first half-century, as the seat of provincial government, a banquet hall for occasions such as celebrations of birthdays of British monarchs, and a meeting place for learned societies such as the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia. But its lasting place in American history was secured during the era of the American Revolution, when Pennsylvania’s central location and relatively moderate politics made Philadelphia the logical gathering place for the First and Second Continental Congresses.

State and National Governments

Despite resistance to independence by the Pennsylvania Assembly, the Second Continental Congress met in the State House beginning in May 1775, and in the east room on the first floor resolved to break from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, and approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Within the State House, Pennsylvania government also changed. In July 1776, a Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention produced a constitution regarded as the most democratic among all the former British colonies, and in 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the nation’s first law mandating the gradual abolition of slavery. The State House served as capital of both the state and national governments for the duration of the War for Independence, interrupted by the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, when the building served as jail and hospital ward for American prisoners.

A second hallmark event in the building’s history occurred in 1787, when the State House served as meeting place for the Constitutional Convention, which convened in May and completed its work on a new frame of government on September 17. Activity in and around the State House then shifted to whether Pennsylvania would ratify the document, and violent street confrontations occurred between supporters (Federalists) and dissenters. After lengthy public debates by a ratifying convention in the State House, focused on issues such as the lack of guarantees for individual rights, Pennsylvania became the second state (after Delaware) to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

The State House continued as the seat of Pennsylvania government through the 1790s, when Philadelphia also served as the nation’s capital, but became the “old” State House after Pennsylvania followed its westward-growing population by moving the state capital to Lancaster in 1799 and later to Harrisburg. When the federal government also left Philadelphia for the new District of Columbia in 1800, the old State House faced an uncertain future.  Through the 1790s and the early decades of the nineteenth century, the second floor gained a new purpose as the home of Charles Willson Peale’s Museum, which aimed to cultivate a new national culture through appreciation of the arts and natural sciences. But the building and square around it became surplus state property at risk of being sold for redevelopment as building lots.

Altered Architecture

[caption id="attachment_2787" align="alignright" width="300"]paiting of Election Day, 1815 Election Day at the State House, 1815, by John Lewis Krimmel (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphians also showed little regard for the original fabric of the old State House when, in 1812, they allowed the structure’s wings and arched piazzas to be replaced by rows of brick buildings for city offices. However, when state proposals in 1813 and 1816 called for selling off the State House square, Philadelphia city officials acted to preserve the building and opened a period of local guardianship that continued until the mid-twentieth century. The city agreed to buy the building and square from the state in 1816, an act regarded as important in the history of historic preservation in the United States.

When the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, visited the United States in 1824, he was welcomed to Philadelphia at the old State House. In the process of planning this event, Philadelphians began to refer to the first-floor east room as “the Hall of Independence” and “Independence Hall”—a name that gradually came to be applied to the entire building. The surrounding square was named Independence Square in 1825, when the city also gave names of historic figures (Washington, Franklin, Rittenhouse, and Logan) to other squares. In 1828, Philadelphia City Councils also ordered a new steeple for the old State House and insisted that it resemble the original, which had rotted away four decades before.  Such actions reflected a growing dedication to preserving the memory of the American Revolution as the founding generation passed from the scene.

[caption id="attachment_2849" align="alignright" width="248"]photgraph of Independence Hall's steeple The Independence Hall steeple, reconstructed in 1828 (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As a public building associated with the nation’s founding events but surviving in the midst of a growing, industrializing city, Independence Hall served as a focal point for engaging the political, economic, and social issues of the nineteenth century. Other than the first-floor room where independence was declared, through the mid-nineteenth century the building housed courtrooms where judgments determined the freedom or loss of freedom for individuals accused of crimes; apprentices who sued for release from their contracts; and African Americans suspected of being fugitives from slavery.

Just Outside, Historic Gatherings

Outside in the square, laborers demonstrated for improved working conditions, immigrants demonstrated in sympathy with revolutions in Europe, and Frederick Douglass spoke against slavery in 1844.  In 1876, Susan B. Anthony and other women’s rights activists distributed a Declaration of Rights of Women. Independence Square remained a forum for public dissent until the early twentieth century, when the City of Philadelphia responded to a planned demonstration by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) by restricting activity to officially designated “patriotic purposes.” After the creation of Independence National Historical Park in the mid-twentieth century, the National Park Service tolerated demonstrations during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, but federal regulations subsequently placed new restrictions on the use of the square, especially following attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Under the guardianship of Philadelphians, Independence Hall gradually transformed from a working government building to a national shrine, with traces of other local uses often erased in the process. The first-floor east room became a shrine to the founding fathers in 1854 under the sponsorship of nativist politicians, who gained control of the city government that year and created new City Council chambers on the second floor. During the Centennial celebration of 1876, the entire first floor of the building became the “National Museum,” featuring portraits and early-American artifacts. At the end of the century, when the City Councils left the building for the new City Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution renovated and redecorated the second floor in Colonial Revival style. The despised “row buildings” that had flanked the central structure since 1812 were replaced by new, graceful archways that resembled the original piazzas and opened a view and passageway from Chestnut Street to the square.

With the building now fully dedicated to historic purposes, in the first decades of the twentieth century Philadelphians also advocated creating expanded parks to buffer the treasured landmark from its dense, heavily industrialized surroundings. They succeeded.  The resulting Independence Mall and Independence National Historical Park at mid-century led to demolition of six city blocks of buildings not regarded as “historic,” an urban renewal project that also opened a new era of professional stewardship by the National Park Service. Independence Hall gained additional recognition in 1979, when it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Independence Hall, the scene of events of national and international importance, also influenced the development and redevelopment of its home city and served as an impetus for the growth of the region’s tourist industry. By the first decades of the twenty-first century, Independence Hall anchored a historic district devoted to tourism and civic education, including the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Center, the Independence Visitor Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and a memorial to the President’s House and individuals enslaved there by George Washington. Surrounded and dwarfed by larger institutions, Independence Hall is accessible by guided tours led by the National Park Service. Expertly restored, it is experienced as a time capsule of the past, but it has many stories to tell.

Charlene Mires  is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and the author of Independence Hall in American Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

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