Carpenters' Company Members and Independence National Historical Park

by Carl G. Karsch

New Hall, 1958,  awaiting reconstruction to its early, two-story appearance. (c ourtesy INHP)

New Hall, 1958, awaiting reconstruction to its early, two-story appearance. (courtesy INHP)

On July 4th, as fireworks festoon the night sky, pause to reflect on the pioneers who, without realizing it, laid the foundation for Independence National Historical Park.

Two and a half centuries ago, pioneering immigrant craftsmen — many of them Carpenters' Company members — were erecting houses and public buildings for the nation's largest city of the 18th century. A handful of these structures managed to survive and form the nucleus of today's Park. But creating the Park in a densely packed neighborhood — and accurately restoring the historic buildings — required pioneers of an entirely different breed.

One of the earliest settlers, a 92-year-old widow of a Company member, recalled her first view of Philadelphia in 1683 — three houses and the Blue Anchor Tavern, where Penn landed. The location: the west side of Front St. just north of Spruce. To the south was a tidal estuary with a small stream flowing into it and the town dock; hence the name Dock Creek. Westward stretched the forest, awaiting clearing. There were swamps to drain, creeks to bridge.

Thanks to Penn's merchandising of his new colony, religious persecution and Europe's incessant warfare, town quickly became city. Immigrants arrived by the shipload. By 1700, barely 20 years after Penn stepped ashore, the population was 2,000, a total which burgeoned to 25,000 by 1776. At least three of the Company's ten founders were born in England, the rest born to parents who were immigrants.

Philadelphia remained a waterfront community, tied to its wharves, warehouses and shipyards. To coax residents away from the river, the colonial Assembly voted in 1730 to build their new State House (now Independence Hall) at 5th St., the extreme western edge of the city. The pioneering gamble worked. By the end of the century, all but two buildings included in the Park were completed.

First city Hall  at 2nd & Market sts. was above market sheds (at left), which extended west as Philadelphia grew. In the background is the spire of Christ Church.

First city Hall at 2nd & Market sts. was above market sheds (at left), which extended west as Philadelphia grew. In the background is the spire of Christ Church.

The Builders. At least two score Company members are known to have been either the master builders or assisted in the construction of the Park's historic structures.

Independence Hall. Edmund Woolley, who was born in England, and his business partner, Ebenezer Tomlinson, began work in 1732 on the State House, its official name until the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. He "drew drafts" (working drawings) and was paid five pounds for what was then the nation's largest building; another bill to the Assembly requested extra payment because "the work expected [of us] was heavy." And it was. Framing, made up of members 12 by16 inches, was in the layout of a "fireman's seat" suspended from the roof trusses. Some timber came from the lumber yard of Joseph Wetherill

Other members who worked at the State House:

  • Thomas Nevell, a former apprentice of Woolley, boldly inscribed his initials on the back of paneling he installed in the central hall during the 1750's.

  • James Pearson and Robert Smith designed a special platform behind the building for astronomical observation. From this platform the Declaration of Independence received its first public reading.

  • Robert Allison, following the British occupation of Philadelphia, received payment for "providing suitable materials for repairs to the court room of the State House and drawing plans for necessary repairs."


Congress Hall (1787). Planned as the city's new courthouse, the building became home to the House of Representatives and, on the second floor, the Senate. The first census of 1790 found states under-represented, requiring the building to be extended southward 26 feet to accommodate more Congressmen.

Eight Company members participated in the Hall's construction.

  • John Barker was treasurer of the project.
  • Edward Mulock received payment for 218 days' work.
  • Joseph Govett and Matthias Sadler were paid 2,000 pounds, the largest invoice, for carpentry.
  • George Forepaugh was master carpenter of the Senate gallery.
  • Hugh Roberts, who also was a county commissioner, received payment for superintending the building.
  • William Williams and Joseph Rakestraw worked on the Hall's extension and received payment in May, 1794; soon after both men died, probably of yellow fever.

Old City Hall. Intended to accommodate the mayor and some courtrooms, the building sprouted in just over a year (1790-91). Lack of space for the new national government compelled the first floor to be devoted to the U.S. Supreme Court. The mayor moved upstairs.

Six from the Company helped with the construction.

Gunning Bedford, Matthew Clarkson, William Colladay and David Evans were on the committee to design the building and arrange financing. Evans also superintended construction.

Joseph Govett and Matthias Sadler were among the carpenters.

Carpenters' Hall. Scottish-born Robert Smith, foremost architect of the colonies, designed the Hall as a showplace for his colleagues. For churches such as St. Peters at 3rd & Pine Sts., Smith created reinforced roof trusses to provide clear spans of more than 60 feet.

City Tavern. Largest hotel in the colonies, it was the center of the city's political, commercial and cultural life in the closing quarter of the 18th century. Builder was Thomas Procter, a native of Ireland, who commanded artillery in Washington's army.

Christ Church. Although outside the Park's boundaries, the church retains close ties to Independence. Twelve Company members participated in construction or renovation of either the first structure or the present magnificent landmark. In 1711, two members — William Coleman and James Portues, who arrived on the "Welcome" with William Penn — worked on an addition to the frame church which occupied the eastern portion of the present site. John and Joseph Thornhill plus John Nicholas were hired in 1741 to complete carpentry of the present church. Daniel and Robert Knight enlarged the organ loft in 1832 to accommodate the choir and orchestra.

In 1752 Robert Smith designed the 197-foot steeple, for many years the city's tallest. Benjamin Loxley furnished custom shaved shingles for the steeple. Lightning struck the steeple during a thunderstorm in 1908, destroying the topmost portion. Two members — John Duncan and Thomas Seeds, also a vestryman — repaired the damage. Seventy-five years later, structural engineer Nicholas L. Gianopulos would be called in to design a system of steel reinforcement.

Dillworth-Todd-Moylan House. In 1775 Jonathan Dillworth built the house at 4th & Walnut Sts. which in 1791 was purchased by attorney John Todd, Jr. Following his death two years later, his widow, Dolley, met and soon married future president James Madison.

Franklin Court. The year before Benjamin Franklin sailed for England in 1764, he entrusted construction of his new house to three Company members. Samuel Rhoads, later a delegate to the First Continental Congress, disbursed payments from Franklin to craftsmen. Among them were master builder Robert Smith, designer of the house, and Robert Allison, who created the interior woodwork.

Four years before his death in 1790, Franklin engaged in what he called "an old man's amusement" by building three row houses on Market St. He also intended them as a profitable investment for his family. Three Company members were involved: Master builder John Hall supervised the workmen; Adam Zantzinger, was one of the carpenters; and Isaac Hall, surveyed the properties for the Mutual Assurance Company.

Second Bank of the U.S. Philip Justus, in addition to superintending the carpenters, received $351.10 for "mahogany work including mantels inside the banking room." His best known work, however, was the two huge ship houses constructed for the Navy at the foot of Washington Ave.

20th Century Pioneers. Independence Park — a dream of civic leaders some 20 years in gestation — was born June 28, 1948, with Congress acting as midwife. The new Park's chief architect, the indomitable Charles E. Peterson, quickly became embroiled in a debate with civic leaders over which buildings should be preserved. He advocated retaining not only 18th century structures but some from the 19th century. It was one of the rare arguments he lost. Only buildings related to the period when Philadelphia was the capital — 1774 to 1800 — would remain. Sole representatives of the 19th century are the Merchants' Exchange and the Second Bank of the U.S.

By the 1950's site clearance and research were underway. Historians, museum specialists, archaeologists and architects — hired by Peterson and his colleagues — were examining old records and the buildings themselves as a prelude to restoration. But they had only one chance to do it right; the budget, although generous, left no margin for error. Independence Hall, for example, had in the past undergone a number of modifications and restorations, none to the original appearance. Lower floors of the Bishop White House and the Todd House had been transformed for commercial purposes.

The Park became a laboratory for innovations in concepts as well as techniques which are incorporated into Park standards used nationwide.

New Windows on the Past. From long-forgotten privy pits and other excavations, archaeologists retrieved fragments of everyday life, from kitchen redware to fine porcelain, glassware and broken toys. A clearer portrait of the households of, for example, Bishop White and Benjamin Franklin began to emerge. Careful digging beneath a 19th century street disclosed the foundation and brick-paved basement of Franklin's house.

Both British and American armies used the square behind Independence Hall as a military encampment. Test trenches yielded cannonballs, musket balls, flints, buttons from uniforms, a sword and a vast quantity of animal bones — an incredible 30,577 artifacts.

Of Microscopes and Otoscopes. Coaxing an old building to reveal its past is never simple. Park architects Penelope Hartshorne Batcheler and Lee H. Nelson pioneered new ways to help determine a structure's age and original appearance. Using a scalpel, Penny first scraped a "bull's eye" on a piece of plaster or wood, then examined the exposed area under a microscope to identify the chronology of colors. From the cornice of Independence Hall's tower stair she counted 55 coats of paint, beginning in the mid-1750's

Nelson studied the history of nail manufacture and became adept at dating alterations by the types of nails, and — and using a physician's otoscope — their holes, thereby adding another new technique. Working together, the pair of unstoppable architects even managed to make latex molds of nail holes for closer study. Constructing Independence Hall stretched over two decades; architects, historians, museum curators and archaeologists took just as long to analyze the building, then restore it.

New Concepts. Preserving historic buildings took new directions. No surprise that Carpenters' Company members, including Park architect Charles E. Peterson, had key roles. Unfortunately, space permits but a sampling.

Nicholas L. Gianopulos, aided by Nelson, designed a system of steel supports to strengthen Independence Hall, relieving the load on old timbers without replacing them. In 1980, Gianopulos developed a similar system for Carpenters' Hall.

Walter S. Riley and George C. Schmidt, of the A. Raymond Raff Co., installed the system, a delicate task requiring steel girders to be threaded in sequence into the attics of both Congress Hall and Independence Hall.

John Milner's interest in historic preservation began as a summer intern at the Park. His firm restored the Market Street houses at Franklin Court and reconstructed the Graff House, where Jefferson drafted the Declaration.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, his wife and business partner, were chosen as architects for Franklin Court, including the unique framework outlining Franklin's house. It was Scott Brown's idea to place the museum underground, providing space for a garden.