Philly Flashbacks

The odd, the interesting and the downright ridiculous.

Archive for the tag “Independence Hall”

The last word in ugliness. Really.

ca 1910 Independence Square

In the photo, above, taken in the early 1920s, you can see the dark ghost of the footprint of a demolished building, just to the south of Congress Hall and just across from the new Public Ledger Building. (Click on this, or any photo, to see a larger image.) Today, there’s no trace of it at all, but, for about 40 years, the city’s much maligned “New Courthouse” stood on that spot.

In December, 1865, after lengthy debate, the Philadelphia City Councils approved an ordinance which provided $35,000 for the erection of “a building on on Sixth Street, below Chestnut, to be used as the Court House for the Quarter Sessions.” Only ten weeks later, ground was broken for what was to be called the “New Courthouse;” the old one was Congress Hall, then being used by the county. See the 1895 map, below.

1895 I Square Court House

Only a few days after the groundbreaking, John McArthur Jr., who would later design Philadelphia’s new City Hall, presented an objection. He argued that any construction would be in direct violation of an 1816 law, which had granted the use of the land as perpetual open ground, and stipulated that no building be erected there, but that it “Shall be enclosed and remain Public Green and Walk for ever.” Oddly enough, this is the same John McArthur Jr. who, in 1870, came up with the design, below, for a new City Hall on Independence Square that would have filled the entire block, swallowing everything except for the State House.



As the building neared completion in 1867, the Inquirer’s assessment of the New Courthouse was mixed:

The new Court House, although not presenting a very imposing appearance so far as the exterior is concerned, will nevertheless give us a court room as complete as any in the State. The first floor is devoted to the Grand Jury and the Clerk of Court. On the south side are two offices for the District Attorney, a male and female witness room, and one large room for the Grand Jury. On the north side is a private office for the Clerk of Quarter Sessions.

1898 New CourthouseThe “New Courthouse” in 1895, looking north east.
The rear of Congress Hall is visible to the left. *

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the New Courthouse served not only as home to the Court of Quarter Sessions, but as the meeting place for the Public Buildings Commission, formed to oversee the construction of the new City Hall in Penn Square. Thirty-three years after completion, the building was used as the headquarters for the sergeant-at-arms of the Republican National Convention. In 1921, while restoration work was being done on Old City Hall, a tunnel was discovered that ran from the prisoner holding cells there all the way across the square to the New Courthouse.

1900 New CourthouseThe New Courthouse in 1900, to the right, behind Congress Hall *

By the late 1890s, most city court functions had moved to the new Public Buildings at Penn Square. In its final role, the Old Courthouse served as the home of the 12,000 volume Library of the Law Department of the University of Pennsylvania, below. The library was moved to West Philadelphia when the new Law Department Building (Silverman Hall) was completed in 1900.  The barn-like old court house was demolished soon after.

1897 Dept of Law

Many plans for Independence Square called for demolishing everything but Independence Hall. Luckily, preservationists were beginning to realize the historical significance of all the structures on the square. The building on the upper right, in the 1897 map above, is no longer called “The County Courthouse,” but is labelled as the “First Senate and First House of Representatives of the U.S.” The demolition began and ended with the 19th century offices that had been added to either side of Independence Hall and the much maligned and now unnecessary “New Courthouse.” If reaction to the building’s design had been lukewarm before, judgment became even harsher after its destruction. In 1909, the Inquirer wrote:

The Civil War stands as a great dividing line between the aesthetic in architecture and the grossly material. A fine example of the progressive decay used to be afforded by a comparison between the State House with its many fine characteristics and the “New Court House” on Sixth Street, which was the last word in ugliness.

A year later, the paper recalled it “was constructed on the principles of a rural barn.”

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*I first noticed the New Courthouse on the 1895 map on the wonderful Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network website. Photos or illustrations of the building were very difficult to find. Many thanks to Andrea Ashby, the Library Technician at the Library and Archives at Independence National Historical Park, for the two rare photos, above.


The Sincerest Form of Flattery



The Lego micro-brick version of Independence Hall, above, reduces Philadelphia’s iconic building to its elementary architectural forms: the formal, red-brick Georgian symmetry, the bell tower with the clock, the balustraded roof and the central entrance way. Even at this micro-scale, this could be nothing else but Independence Hall.

1893 PA


Beginning with General Lafayette’s visit in 1824, the building that was commonly known as “The Old State House” in Philadelphia took on a new name and a new symbolism as “Independence Hall.” No longer just an old building,  it now filled a solemn and sacred function as the place where America was born. By the end of the 19th century, it had reached  iconic stature as the most prized emblem of both the city Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania. When Pennsylvania participated in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it only seemed right that its state building, above, should be a version of Independence Hall, enlarged, surrounded by porches, and adorned with massive Victorian sculptures.

1903 Methodist Orphanage Raleigh NC

The iconography of the Hall shows its influence next in the 1903 Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh, North Carolina, above. The structure was replaced by a modern administration building in 1933 and demolished in the 1980s. I’m not sure how the symbolism of Our Nation’s Birthplace applies to an orphanage, Methodist or otherwise.

The Pennsylvania State building at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907, below, was a much closer copy of Independence Hall, reproduced in three-quarter scale, with small porticos added at each end. The porticos vaguely echoed the covered walkways that linked the east and west wings to the original State House. The Reynoldsville, PA Star reported that “Everybody is at home in Independence Hall, because Independence Hall belongs to everybody.”

1907 Jamestown I Hall

Finished in 1915, the Jonathan Maynard building, below, was built as a school in Framingham, MA. It still stands on the Framingham Town Common.

1915 Jonathan Maynard Bldg Framingham

1915 Panama Pacific

For the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, Pennsylvania turned to the old State House again for inspiration for its state building. This time, it left off the tower entirely and added a two story open loggia along the façade, above, which the Official Guide claimed “was closely copied from the central portion of Independence Hall.” California state senator A. E. Boynton enthusiastically supported bringing the Liberty Bell out the Exposition, stating “Bringing the Libery Bell out here will give us, here on the western coast of the country, a chance to see an object that all patriotic Americans wish to view. Building a replica of Independence Hall will complete the picture.” Touted as “The Nation’s Most Treasured Relic,” the Liberty Bell left Philadelphia for the last time on July 6, 1915, to travel by train on a nationwide tour, then displayed in a steel vault within the building.


Dartmouth was one of the first universities to model a campus building after Independence Hall. Its Baker Memorial Library, below, opened in 1928. From the 1920s through the 1950s, the formal dignity of Georgian architecture seemed particularly appropriate for America’s academic buildings.

1928 Baker Mem Library Dartmouth


When industrialist Henry Ford constructed a museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan in 1929, his centerpiece, below, was the first exact replica of Independence Hall constructed anywhere. Except for the vast expanse of lawns, it could easily be mistaken for the original.

Henry Ford Museum

1930 Lowell House

From 1920 to World War II, nostalgic Colonial Revival architecture showed that futuristic Art Deco was not the only game in town. Harvard University’s Lowell House, above, was built in 1930. Even chain restaurants like Howard Johnson’s, below, sprouted Independence Hall inspired central cupolas.

1930s HoJos

In New York, Brooklyn College continued the patriotic trend in academic architecture when it modeled its 1935 LaGuardia Hall library building, below, after Independence Hall.

1935 LaGuardia Hall library Brooklyn College

1937 saw the construction of  Draper Hall at Berea College, below. The tower was remodeled in 2000 to hold a 56 bell, 11 ton carillon, the largest in Kentucky.

1937 Draper Hall Berea College KY

1937 also saw the cornerstone laid for The Founders Library, below,  at historically black Howard University in Washington D.C., built under the supervision of African American architect Albert I. Cassell.  When asked about its resemblance to Independence Hall, Louis Frye, an employee of Cassell, said “since the Library was dedicated to liberty, there was no more appropriate design for Howard University’s major building to emulate.”

Founders Hall


For the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Pennsylvania eschewed the sleek Streamline Moderne style that characterized much of that fair’s architecture and again turned to Independence Hall for its state building, below.

1939 Worlds Fair

Here’s a description from the 1939 World’s Fair Guide Book:

An exact model of Philadelphia’s famous Independence Hall, the Exhibit comprises displays which are modern in spirit. In the center of the tower-entrance, the visitor sees an enlarged replica of the Liberty Bell, while to the left and right, walls are draped with the flags of the 48 states. . . From the Unity Bridge, a curved steel structure suspended from the ceiling, the visitor is provided with a clear view of displays in both the Hall of Democracy and the Hall of Tradition.


Bellarmine- Jeffeson Catholic High School in Brubank, California, below, opened its doors in 1944. Not only is the façade of the main building inspired by Independence Hall, but the tower clock facing east is permanently set at 8:00 pm to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The clock facing west is permanently set for 4:00 pm, the hour that the Constitution of the United States was signed on September 17, 1787.

Bellarmine-Jefferson High School at Olive Avenue and Fifth Street, in Burbank.


The Edmon Low Library at Oklahoma State University opened its doors in 1953. Unlike its inspiration in Philadelphia, the library has six floors and contains over two and a half million books.

architecture; campus; edmon low; library; sunrise; spring; hero

In 1958, the Moose Association built this modest version of Independence Hall, below, at its Mooseheart, Illinois headquarters, making the stolid patriotism of the Loyal Order of Moose unquestionable. Both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were Moose members.

1958 Moose Association Mooseheart

Our neighboring state, Delaware, got its own Independence Hall when it built Independence Mall, below. Billed as “a place to make your own history,” it opened next to a cemetery in Wilmington on July 4, 1964.

1964 Ind Mall Delaware


1966 Knotts Berry Farm

Not to be outdone by Henry Ford, Walter Knott made sure that his 160 acre Knott’s Berry Farm, which opened in 1966 in Buena Park, California, had its own Independence Hall, above. Knott’s claims that it’s the “only brick by brick replica of the original,” although its Liberty Bell, which sits in the vestibule of the building, weighs five pounds less than the one in Philadelphia. In 1979, the Knott’s location was used to film “The Rebels,” for TV, with Tom Bosley as Benjamin Franklin, below. Photo courtesy  Orange County Archives.

Tom Bosley 1979

Here’s a Bank of America, below, complete with a drive through window. It’s in Portland, Oregon. Of course.

Portland Oregon

Just last year, this Independence Bouncy Hall, below, showed up at the Gilbert, Arizona Constitution Fair. Let Freedom Bounce!

2012 Gilbert AZ  Constitution Fair


The proposed design for the new American Revolution Center on Third Street, below, features a cupola, “echoing but not reproducing the cupola of Independence Hall,” says architect Robert A.M. Stern. The low slung façade is of conservative red brick with mullioned windows and a row of arches topped with keystones. PlanPhilly called Stern’s traditionalist offering “just one more pale imitation of the great Independence Hall.”


These are just a handful of the many replicas and buildings inspired by Philadelphia’s Independence Hall that dot our national landscape. I’d bet there’s one in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. Let me know if you know of others.

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For a fine history of the Hall and its iconography, I recommend reading “Independence Hall in American Memory,” by Charlene Mires: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

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