City Tavern: A Feast of Elegance

by Carl G. Karsch

An awning shades the Tavern's entrance in this 18th-century print. At right is the Bank of Pennsylvania which rented Carpenters' Hall while this imposing structure was underway.

An awning shades the Tavern's entrance in this 18th-century print. At right is the Bank of Pennsylvania which rented Carpenters' Hall while this imposing structure was underway.

If ever a building embodied the spirit of a city, the City Tavern did just that in the closing quarter of the 18th century. Through its doorway, crowned with a decorative fanlight, came all the great men — and some notable women — of colonial America. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams stayed there with their husbands. The glamorous Peggy Shippen, who later abetted the treachery of her husband, Benedict Arnold, probably graced the bi-weekly "dancing assemblies."

From its construction in 1773 until the federal government moved to the new capital in 1800, the City Tavern witnessed more pivotal events in the nation's history than any structure in British North America, except for the State House itself.

  • George Washington, first as general then president, attended festive banquets beyond counting. One honored the 20-year-old Lafayette following his newly minted Congressional appointment. The general, then 45, soon came to rely on the French aristocrat's military judgment, thought of him as family, perhaps even the son he never had. Washington and his aides made the Tavern their headquarters before leaving for Brandywine. En route to Yorktown, the general staffs of both the French and American armies were feted here. Three gala evenings deserve mention, one bitter-sweet, the others joyous. On December 12, 1783, Washington — en route to his long anticipated retirement at Mount Vernon — paused overnight to bid farewell to friends he probably thought he'd not see again. A few days earlier was the tearful dinner with his officers at Fraunces Tavern, in New York.

    Some measure of the hero worship surrounding Washington can be seen in the tumultuous welcome of April, 1789, when he stopped overnight on the way to New York for his first inauguration. Cheering crowds followed his procession through the city to the Tavern. There was a dinner described by the Pennsylvania Packet as "an elegant entertainment of 250 covers," band music and, of course, a brilliant display of fireworks. A year later, in September, President Washington made his first official visit accompanied by his household: Mrs. Washington and her two little grandchildren, two military aides, two maids and eight servants. All stayed at the Tavern. Philadelphians, veterans in rolling out the red carpet, did it again. And well they should. The new president was the glue binding a nation with many divisions.

  • Paul Revere reined up at the City Tavern more than once. In December, 1773, he brought news of the Boston Tea Party. Five months later, only six days after leaving home, Revere brought letters imploring Philadelphia's support for Boston, soon to be closed in retaliation. Troops and a British frigate were about to bring the city to its economic knees. While Revere impatiently awaited a response, several hundred citizens of all political stripes jammed the Tavern's second floor "Long Room," for a town meeting, neither the first nor last of such extra-legal gatherings. The statement, a compromise, was lukewarm in support of Boston. But more important, it called for a Committee of Correspondence to keep in close touch with other colonies and a Congress to plan future action. Joseph Fox, "master" or president of the Carpenters' Company, became a member of the Committee; Samuel Rhoads, another Company member, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
  • Committees of both the First Continental Congress and later ones met to draft reports and, over dinner which usually began at 4 P.M., discuss the nation's business. One delegate commented that more could be learned from eavesdropping on conversations at the Tavern than by attending sessions at the State House. So much for secrecy.
  • Delegates to both the First Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention concluded their work with a celebratory dinner. John Jay, a signer of the treaty concluding the Revolution, was in residence while president of the Congress.
  • Thomas Jefferson took most of his meals at the Tavern while writing the Declaration.
  • On July 4th, 1777, less than three months before Congress fled to York, PA, the city celebrated what Adams called "the anniversary of American Independence." A naval review with 13-gun salutes... parades... fireworks... candles illuminating nearly every window... and, naturally, a grand dinner at the City Tavern for everyone who was anyone. Playing outside was a Hessian military band captured at Trenton.
  • It was a different story on September 24, when General Cornwallis (later of Yorktown fame) led the first British troops down the post road, past Christ Church to the Tavern. Daniel Smith, the manager and Tory sympathizer, entertained as best he could with short supplies. Officers billeted at the Tavern hosted weekly balls. Two "single gentlemen" advertised for "a young woman to work in the capacity of a housekeeper, who can occasionally put her hand to anything. Extravagant wages will be given, and no character [references] required."
  • The good times ended in May when the British army acknowledged the occupation as a hollow victory and left for New York. Daniel Smith joined 3,000 Tories evacuated by ship.
  • When Charleston fell in May, 1780, the British captured not only the city but arms for the Americans' southern campaign as well. Finances, already at the breaking point, made new supplies unlikely. In one month's time, merchants of Philadelphia, meeting at the Tavern, pledged their entire capital — some 300,000 pounds — for a private bank to "furnish a supply of provisions for the Armies of the United States." Taking no profits, the bank made possible the campaign leading to Yorktown.
  • A Mohawk Indian chief, visiting as a guest of Congress, charged to his tab "tickets for the play," feathers for a bamboo cane and "segars."
  • Officers were elected at the Tavern to form the First Bank of the United States, the nation's first central bank, housed in the landmark structure on south Third St.
  • Alexander Reinagle conducted the country's first series of chamber orchestra concerts in the Tavern's "Long Room," the largest such room in any colony except for one bearing the same name in the State House. British trained and acquainted with Bach's talented son, Karl Phillip Emanuel, Reinagle included music by contemporaries Haydn and Mozart.
  • In the century's closing decade, newer hotels tarnished some of the Tavern's glitter. It continued to thrive, however, by adding more rooms for travelers and emphasizing what it had already become — the city's center of trade. A new name said it all: "The City Tavern and Place of Exchange," which eventually occupied the first two floors. It was here that a Board of Brokers first printed daily sales, leading to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. Financier Stephen Girard was a familiar visitor. The volume of marine insurance, particularly for rich cargoes of the China trade, led to founding of the Insurance Company of North America. In 1834, having outgrown the Tavern, the Merchants Exchange moved to its third home, one block west on Walnut St.

Symbol of an era

Playing host to history was farthest from the minds of the City Tavern's sponsors. For the previous 20 years the London Coffee House at Front & Market Sts. had been the place to trade ships' cargoes and merchants' gossip, read newspapers from the colonies and homeland, even drink coffee or something stronger. Now Philadelphia, firmly established as the largest and most prosperous colonial city, was ready to reflect this opulence in a meeting place. What the trustees and subscribers to the Tavern wanted, and got, was a genteel club the equal of any in England. It would be the center of business by day and entertainment at night.

Fifty-three subscribers, each of whom contributed 25 pounds, included all the successful professional and business men. One was Joseph Fox, a prosperous Quaker. But the seven trustees — charged with raising the funds, choosing the design and builder, and hiring the tavern manager — were in a class by themselves. Just how far apart is evident from two homes still standing. On south Third St. lived Samuel Powel, grandson of a Carpenters' Company member and inheritor of 90 properties. He was typical of those who made the "grand tour" of western Europe, perfecting a love of art and bringing home paintings and sculpture. No dilettante, Powel plunged into politics, becoming the last mayor under British rule and the first after the occupation. Some measure of how much Madeira wine was consumed in colonial times can be gained from the mansion of Henry Hill on south Fourth St. (The house is now named for a later owner, Dr. Physick.) Madeira, imported from the island 100 miles off the coast of Casablanca, was loaded as ships' ballast for the trans-Atlantic crossing. Washington was said to enjoy a pint daily with dinner. John Adams, never at a loss for words, wrote: "I drank Madeira at a great rate and found no inconvenience with it."

The Tavern's designer is unknown. Several trustees understood architecture, one being Hill, credited with the design of Congress Hall and Old City Hall. Of the builder there is no doubt — Thomas Procter, at 33 a new member of the Carpenters' Company. Three other members had roles. Joseph Wetherill supplied lumber. Insurance surveyor for the Philadelphia Contributionship was Gunning Bedford. In the Tavern's later years, David Gray made alterations to expand the number of bedrooms.

Bounty beyond belief

Compared to the ease of today's cookery — microwaves ... frozen dinners ... countless types of take-out food — the variety and sheer quantity of dishes prepared in the wood-burning fireplaces of the Tavern's basement kitchens defies comprehension. For the chefs, bountiful foods were close at hand. Stephen Hopkins, a Congressional delegate from Rhode Island, counted 70 farm wagons at semi-weekly market days, an absolute necessity before refrigeration. Oyster beds in the Delaware River seemed inexhaustible. Salmon were so abundant farmers used them for fertilizer. Ships from the West Indies brought tropical fruits, and yellow fever, too.

A mechanical bell system, the country's first, summoned waiters who served "family style." Typically, dinner included two tureens of soup — one at each end of the table — at least two fish dishes, a shoulder of mutton, a ham, a roast of pork or beef, wild game, chicken or turkey. In addition were salads, sauces and relishes. For dessert: cakes, tarts and puddings followed by fruits, nuts and the inevitable decanters of Madeira wine. For large parties, depending on the host's budget, perhaps as many as 20 dishes were served.

Women, unfortunately, were not invited. It would be another century before they could dine in public without prompting scandal. Even at the Tavern's famed "dancing assemblies," ladies adjourned to rooms on the third floor for their own dessert table: pies, pastries, puddings and sweetmeats.

New Tavern for old

On the eve of the landmark's demolition, in January, 1854, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin lamented that "in a generation or two the City Tavern will not be remembered except by some curious delver into the past." Fortunately, the newspaper was wrong. In 1975 — slightly more than two centuries after Thomas Procter built the first Tavern — Independence National Historical Park completed an accurate replica. But the new City Tavern provides more than a taste of history. On the restaurant's menu are 18th-century dishes adapted to 21st-century waistlines.