A Walk with Robert Smith
by Carl G. Karsch
Let's take a walk — in our imagination at least — in Robert Smith's Philadelphia. Within a mile of Carpenters' Hall are a half-dozen buildings he either designed or guided their construction. And there are memories, some with historical markers, of many more. In 29 years of Smith's working life, he was responsible for 52 projects, not only here but in neighboring states. No other 18th century architect approached that figure.
First, before beginning the tour, we must get better acquainted with our guide. Without realizing it, Robert Smith's arrival in Philadelphia could not have been better timed. The city destined to become the largest in the colonies — and the nation's first capital — needed buildings to match its expansion. Only 26 when he landed, Smith's talents quickly became known; major commissions followed. How he gained his knowledge of architecture and design is unclear. Robert was the fourth son of a baker (a "baxter") and his wife in Dalkeith, a small town near Edinburgh, Scotland. Moving to London, he was a keen observer of its churches and public buildings, which would influence his work here.
Larger structures demanded an exceptional architect. Smith became that man. The new Scottish immigrant embodied three essentials for success, then and now: a thorough understanding of design and engineering; the ability to expand technology; and the gift of what we call "networking."
Architectural books were his passion. In London, he borrowed those of his employers. In Philadelphia, when he became successful, he purchased them. Three are prized possessions of the Carpenters' Hall library. Unlike today's architects, Smith did not innovate designs. Instead he practiced the accepted Georgian architectural idiom of his era, named for British kings named George who ruled in the 18th century. His grasp of design and engineering won Smith contracts for most of the city's large public projects. Of 13 churches credited to Smith, eight were in Philadelphia, four in New Jersey and one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Congregations of large churches demanded an unobstructed view of the pulpit, not one interrupted with columns supporting the roof. Smith's solution: a "raised tie beam truss" capable of spanning up to 65 feet. To create the truss, heavy timbers were reinforced with iron plates and strapping. The new truss also made possible a graceful arched ceiling with better acoustics. Fifteen years before the Revolution, Smith presented to the Pennsylvania Assembly a model for a covered bridge using multiple trusses across the Schuylkill river at Market St. Smith's bridge would have replaced a ferry and, later, a floating bridge of logs chained together, which had the unfortunate habit of being swept away in floods.
Smith's third talent, networking, paid off quickly and handsomely. Here are a few examples. Deputy governor James Hamilton gave Smith — less than a year after his arrival — the job of extensive renovations to Bush Hill, Hamilton's country mansion. Pleased with "my carpenter," Hamilton, also a prominent Mason, probably steered Smith to building the Freemasons' Lodge, America's first Masonic hall, off 2nd St. near the City Tavern. A contract for the Second Presbyterian Church helped assure Smith work at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Erecting the 200-foot landmark steeple of Christ Church paved the way for building two Anglican (Episcopal) churches, St. Paul's and St. Peter's.
Fellow master builders welcomed Smith into Carpenters' Company membership early in his career. Just how early is unknown, thanks to a British patrol which burned the Company president's country home, where early records were stored. Smith's name is one of three on the deed purchasing the lot for the Company's future home.
Philadelphia's artisans — skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, printers and metal smiths — formed the core support for the approaching Revolution. In June, 1774, three months before the First Continental Congress at Carpenters' Hall, Robert Smith attended an overflow meeting at the City Tavern to protest closing of the port of Boston by the British and summon a Congress to assert the rights of American colonists. He also joined the "Committee of Forty" raising money for supplies by the wagonload sent to Boston families facing starvation that winter.
His contributions to defending Delaware river approaches to the city were critical and, as it proved, fatal. At Fort Mifflin, he strengthened a fortification which later helped delay the British fleet from supplying their army in Philadelphia. Smith designed and supervised installation of 65 innovative "chevaux-de-frise," underwater obstacles which could — and did — impale enemy shipping.
Late in the frigid month of December, 1776, Smith was rushing barracks to completion at Fort Billingsport, New Jersey, several miles downstream from Mifflin, when he became ill. Two months later the 55-year-old architect died in his home on south 2nd St. His unmarked grave is in the Friends burial ground, near 4th and Race Sts.
Robert Smith was not the first immigrant — nor would he be the last — to give his life in the wars of his adopted homeland.
Learn more about America's foremost architect of the 18th century. "Robert Smith — architect, builder, patriot," by Charles E. Peterson, is a compelling narrative of Smith's professional life and a comprehensive, illustrated catalog of his known works.
Carpenters' Hall, starting point of our tour, is a crown jewel of Independence National Historical Park and its second oldest building. Independence Hall pre-dates it by 20 years. Carpenters' Hall enjoyed a monopoly in the colonial city; it was the only building available for rent. More than two dozen organizations made it their home until 1857, when it became the nation's second national historic shrine.
The Hall's idyllic setting amid lawns and gardens is misleading. Originally, the building was at the head of a dead-end courtyard, totally surrounded by houses. These in turn were replaced by ever-larger structures of the city's financial district. The handsome south doorway, pictured here, opened in the 18th century to a depressing view of the privy and an odorous tanyard along the south branch of Dock creek.
Robert Smith, overloaded with projects during the 1760's, is believed to have recycled the design for a rural county courthouse, where it highlighted the town square. He was too busy even to oversee construction. That task fell to Benjamin Loxley, a Company member who served in the Revolution as an artillery officer.
Christ Church steeple was for 150 years the first landmark seen by ships' captains nearing Philadelphia. At just under 200 feet, the steeple is a marvel of design, the achievement of a 3l-year-old architect just five years in this country. Work on the masonry tower began in 1751; two years later carpenters fabricated heavy framing, ready for raising. Hearty "collations" for carpenters and steeplejacks celebrated completion of the steeple and later the spindle. John Thornhill, another Carpenters' Company member, installed floors and staircases.
Zion Lutheran Church, which could seat 2,500 worshippers, was the largest in the colonies. Even so, it was filled to capacity. By mid-century 30,000 Germans had arrived in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1749 some 12,000 landed. Most settled in Germantown or on the frontier. Others clustered in the neighborhood westward from Franklin Square.
Zion church had more than its share of bad luck. Differences on theology and the wisdom of a heavy debt delayed the decision to proceed until 1766, when Robert Smith vetoed the possibility of expanding the former church, St. Michael's. Three years later Zion, still unfinished and heavily indebted, was consecrated. Its next misfortune came in 1777, when the British army of occupation destroyed the richly embellished interior to create a military hospital. Not until 1781, the year of Yorktown, was the church refurbished. An observer described the next tragedy: "I was reading In the back parlor when I was alarmed by the sound of a fire engine... We thought the fire was extinguished when we heard the bells ringing again. I was apprehensive that the great and superb [church] building would be entirely consumed." Unfortunately, it was; only the brick walls remained. William Colladay, a Carpenters' Company member, used Smith's original plans to rebuild "Die Alte Zionskirche", which served its congregation until 1868.
Benjamin Franklin's home, just north of Carpenters' Hall, was one of at least a score of houses Smith either designed or built. All but three have vanished.
In 1763 the Franklins tired of living in rented quarters — 13 in 33 years of marriage — and determined to build a home truly their own. Franklin couldn't resist the role of designer. Smith turned the inventor-diplomat's rough sketches into working drawings. To another Company member, Samuel Rhoads, Franklin delegated the task of financial controller and accountant. Benjamin and Deborah never enjoyed their home together. Construction began after he left for extended travel as postmaster general, followed by a lengthy stay in England. He returned a year after Deborah's death and spent the closing years being grandfather to his daughter's growing family.
Today, gleaming steel outlines the image of Franklin's house and printshop. Franklin Court is the work of Robert Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, both Company members.
The second house exhibiting Smith's handiwork is that of Samuel Powel, one of the city's foremost citizens who inherited wealth and married more of it. The newlyweds had hardly moved into their 3rd St. mansion before Smith received contracts for renovations and additions to a home he may have built four years earlier. On the third floor, Smith added iron strapping to reinforce trusses so the ballroom, directly beneath, could withstand the rhythmic vibrations of dancing feet.
The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) voted to let contracts for Nassau Hall, the institution's principal building, and a house for its second president, the Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr. Smith got both jobs. The structures, considerably altered, still stand. Burr's son, Aaron, Jr., became the third vice president of the United States.
St. Peter's Church, the walking tour's final stop, would be immediately recognized by our guide. Another architect, William Strickland, added the steeple in 1842; but its style would remind the master builder of his pioneering work nearly a century earlier at Christ Church. Inside are pews he designed as well as the chancel rail and pulpit with its magnificent sounding board (called the "glory") Smith crafted himself. Less happy memories would be recalled — of bills unpaid until 13 years after the cornerstone was laid. St. Peter's had to resort to a lottery, a common fund-raising tactic, to help reduce their debt to Smith.
St. Peter's was not Smith's only "slow pay." He billed for major projects as work progressed. Suppliers and workmen had to be paid, regardless of a client's inability to pay. Borrowing money from wealthy friends became the only solution. Smith died without a will, bequeathing a tangled financial web to his wife, Esther, and their four children. One thing was clear: debts far outweighed assets. It took a sheriff's sale of Smith's property more than a decade later to settle his estate.
Hardly a fitting farewell to the premier architect and master builder of colonial America.