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Philadelphia of 19th and Early 20th Century





Philadelphia, the largest city of Pennsylvania was founded in 1682 by English Quaker William Penn.

Birds Eye View of Philadelphia - 1875

Philadelphia is known as the Birthplace of the Nation because of its role in America's struggle for independence from Britain. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were drafted in the city.  The name Philadelphia was derived from the Greek words meaning “city of brotherly love,” and Penn opened his city to people of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Modern Philadelphia has worked hard to maintain that diversity while becoming one the great commercial, cultural, and educational centers in the United States.

The city of Philadelphia, which since 1854 has had the same boundaries as the county of Philadelphia, is located in the southeastern corner of the state, at the junction of the Delaware River and Schuylkill River.  A major port, the city lies about 100 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and is situated approximately halfway between New York City and Washington, D.C.

Philadelphia's original street plan, as laid out by William Penn and his surveyor general, Thomas Holme, established a pattern of rectangular blocks called a grid system.  The grid included four public squares that defined each of the city's sectors, as well as a central square that eventually became the site of City Hall.  Numbered thoroughfares ran north and south, while east and west streets were named mainly for trees, such as Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, and Pine streets.  Large building lots freed residents from the problems of overcrowding experienced by other 17th-century cities and also encouraged more real estate development.

As Philadelphia grew in different directions, the grid system was extended to the city limits.  Along these streets, developers constructed row houses in two-, three-, and occasionally, grand four-story models. These houses fronted on the street, but because of the size of the original lots, 18th-century landowners then added new alleys and courts behind them.  There they built rental units, including the three-story tenements that became home to thousands of the city's poor Irish, Jewish, and black immigrants during the 19th century.

The portion of William Penn's original town site that extended west from the Delaware River also included many important commercial and government buildings.  This area, often called Center City, now contains the Independence National Historical Park.  The park includes more than 20 sites associated with early American history. Perhaps the most famous is Independence Hall, originally completed in 1753 as the home of the Pennsylvania colonial government. 

The Declaration of Independence was adopted in this building, and it was also the location of the debate over the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States.

Other historic buildings nearby include Carpenters' Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774; the First and Second Banks of the United States; and Old City Hall which housed the Supreme Court of the United States from 1791 to 1800.

The Liberty Bell, which originally hung in Independence Hall, now rests in its own glass-walled pavilion, and Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin's home, includes an underground museum.

Center Square, later known as Penn Square, marked the exact geographical center of Philadelphia's original plan and the intersection of the city's two main thoroughfares, Broad and Market streets. At this site in 1871 the city began construction of a massive new City Hall, which, when it was completed 30 years later, became the largest municipal building in the United States. A towering statue of William Penn stands on top of the structure. To preserve it as a focal point of downtown Philadelphia, an informal agreement that remained in effect for more than a century banned any new buildings that would exceed the height of City Hall.

Since the 1950s Philadelphia has embarked on major redevelopment and restoration projects for this downtown area of the city. In eastern Center City, the Society Hill area was transformed from a decaying district of mixed housing and commercial structures into an affluent urban residential village with numerous restored 18th- and early 19th-century townhouses. Penn Center, across from City Hall, became the first of several new commercial and office complexes to be completed. Not until 1987, however, with the construction of One Liberty Place did Philadelphia developers abandon the old height restriction and begin to add skyscrapers to the city skyline. Philadelphia's transformation distinguished itself by the preservation of the old and the integration of the new; thus, a restored 18th-century town house may sit comfortably in the shadow of modern metal-and-glass high-rise buildings.

An enduring feature of Philadelphia is its mosaic of neighborhoods, reminders of the original villages, townships and districts that were eventually incorporated into the city. Maps of Philadelphia identify as many as 100 commonly agreed-upon subdivisions of the city, and local residents often break down these areas even further. Many of these neighborhoods retain the character of the racial and ethnic groups who settled in them. South Philadelphia, for example, is known as an Italian section of the city.

The district known as Chinatown developed around Ninth and Race streets as early as the 1860s and continues to have a strong Asian influence.

Southwark, which stretches along the Delaware River, had one of America's first large free black populations in an urban area and remains an important center for Philadelphia's black community.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

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