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The Restoration of Congress Hall
found on pages 98-102 in T SQUARE Yearbook

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The group of buildings in Independence Square facing Chestnut Street has recently and rightly been called America's first civic centre. It is not a little singular that these three buildings though erected for the uses of the city, county, and state should each have served as a setting for events of the deepest significance in the life of the nation.

To the eastward, City Hall was for a memorable period the seat of the Supreme Court of the United States which there rendered, at a formative period of the Country's history, decisions which left a deep impress upon the interpretation of the Constitution.

To the westward, the County Building yielded itself to national service while for ten years the Congress of the United States occupied it.

In the centre, the State House, erected sixty-four years before its neighbors, served the nation in such great events as the Declaration of Independence and the making of the Constitution.


It is, however, only with the County Building, or, as it is now called, Congress Hall, that we are here concerned. That building, commenced in 1787, was completed in two years. When Congress fixed the location of the Capitol upon the banks of the Potomac, it selected Philadelphia as the temporary seat of Government and accepted an invitation to use the County Building. Congress sat in it for the first time on December 6, 1790, and for the last on May 14, 1800.

During this period many memorable events took place within the building, such as the second inauguration of Washington, the delivery by Washington of his farewell address, the inauguration of John Adams.

On account of the addition of new states to the Union, the house was found too small, and in the summer of 1793 it was lengthened to the southward, the five windows on each side being increased to seven. The original south end was of the same form as the present, Plate B, as is proved by excavations which revealed the foundations of it and by the roof in which the original framing remains intact.

Sweeping changes were made in the interior about the year 1800 to fit the building for the use of courts and offices. At that time, the northern wall of the House of Representatives was removed, a broad passageway was constructed across the middle of the building, an arched entrance from Sixth Street was formed at its west end, and a stairway was set up at the east end of it. The exterior, Plates A and B, fortunately suffered little change. It is to-day substantially as it was when Congress sat in it. Its old cupola, Plate C, needed but slight repairs and the admirable balcony of wrought iron work, Plates A and D, is quite untouched. The dwarf doors, Plate K, opening onto the balcony are also in their original state, as is the main cornice and nearly all of the brickwork.


In spite of the many changes in the interior of the building the Committee in charge of the alterations was with the aid of extracts from some thirty ancient sources (journals, diaries, books, pamphlets, newspapers, and engravings), enabled even without the evidence of the building itself to determine that the following had been its arrangement after its enlargement and before its abandonment by Congress. The north doorway from Chestnut Street, Plates A and E, was the principle entrance. Through it one passed into a vestibule, Plates E,F,G, and H. The remainder of the first floor was occupied by the House of Representatives, which had a public gallery, Plates L and M, across its northern end. On its south side there was a three-sided bay, Plates N and O, corresponding to the one on the room above, Plate R. It had two doors opening directly into the State House Yard, Plate B, and was heated by four stoves. From the front vestibule, one ascended to the second floor, where there was a vestibule similar to that below. From this a broad entry with rooms, Plates U and W, on each side of it led southward to the Senate Chamber, Plates P,Q,R,S, and T, which was much smaller than the House of Representatives.


For more than a year, the Committee interrogates the structure itself, removing successive layers of wallpaper, paint, plaster and flooring, the accretions of a century, thus laying bare far more abundant evidences of its original condition than could have been expected. The written records on the main corroborated each other and were in turn corroborated by the evidence of the structure; an evidence precise, incontrovertible and turn for the purposes of authentic restoration, indispensable. As the work of exploration progressed careful drawings and photographs of all the evidence thus disclosed were made.


One of the first questions to which the Committee devoted itself was the location of the missing north wall of the House of Representatives. This wall might, of course, be assumed to stand on the northernmost of the two interior transverse cellar walls. The plastering was, therefore, removed from the east and west side of the room in a vertical strip over the ends of the cellar wall, and there were found the points of juncture of the missing wall with the east and west walls. The missing wall had been of brick. It was bonded into the east and west side walls, and was undoubtedly built at the same time as those walls. Where the bricks had been broken off at the time of the removal of this wall, their rough ends showed plainly. Had the wall been in this position, it would have prevented the use of a complete wooden architrave, on the south side of the first floor windows next to Chestnut Street on both the east and west sides. In confirmation of the correctness of this position of the wall it was found that both these architraves had been pieced out so as to complete them.


The original location and even the number of stairways was long in doubt. The five or six references in old writers agreed in only one point, viz., that the means of access to the second floor was at the north end of the building near the front door. Fortunately the evidence obtained from the structure made it unnecessary to depend upon such references. The Committee having thoroughly examined the stairway which had been set up at the eastern end of the cross entry, decided that its spandrel, balusters, handrail, wall rail and the doorway leading to the cellar were of decidedly earlier workmanship than that of the year 1820, the approximate date at which the stairway was put in place. The forms and molding of the parts named harmonize with the undisturbed woodwork of 1789, and are readily distinguishable from the work of 1820. It was, therefore, concluded that these parts cane from a stairway, which had probably been a part of the original building.

On examining the inner face of the north wall of the building between the two windows west of the door, it was found that the plastering had been patched by an inclined stripe, plainly visible, corresponding to the wall rail of a stairway. The points where this rail had abutted upon the window casings and trim were also found. Holes in which the timbers of the landing had been fixed together with many other evidences in detail of a stairway starting near the door and running across the windows, were found. Now, if the old stairway in the centre of the building had come from a place near the front door it must by its design have been from the northwest corner. An attempt was, therefore, made to design a stairway, which using the angle of the stairway then in the cross entry, should start in the vestibule, reach a landing at the ascertained level, and thence the second floor at a double trimmer the location of which was evident. This attempt was a complete failure. The stairway would neither start at a proper place in the vestibule, insisting on starting much nearer the axis of the building than seemed reasonable, and always overrunning the trimmers on the second floor. The Committee was quite at a loss for explanation until it was discovered that the spandrel had been ingeniously altered, when the present stairway was erected so that the old rake or pitch was concealed and the new stairway given an easier pitch. The original angle of inclination was found to be identical with the angle of the wall rail patch between the windows. And attempt was then made to draw the stairway with the newly-found angle, and this met all of the conditions of the problem perfectly. The remains of the old stairway were found to coincide absolutely with the indications on the walls. They have, therefore, been re-erected in the northwest corner of the building. A general view of the stairway is given in Plate G. Its rail is seen crossing a window in Plate I, and a view of the old spandrel which gave the solution is seen in Plate H.

The predilection of the eighteenth century for balanced arrangements naturally caused the Committee to assume another stairway in the northeast corner. The building furnished equally abundant evidence of the former existence of a stairway there, but nothing remained of it. Therefore a stair similar to the old one was built for the northeast corner. It is seen at the right in Plate H.


No portion of the building had been more completely changed by the alterations of the early nineteenth century than the room which occupied almost the entire first floor, the room in which sat the House of Representatives. The original windows with their trims remained, and considerable stretches of the original cornice and wainscot, Plate O, were found in place. Old doors and fireplaces, Plate M, also existed. With all this, with the fixing of the place of the north wall, and with the descriptions given by old writers, it was not difficult to imagine the appearance of the room.

Thomas Twining, in the journal of his travels, says: "Two folding doors" Plate F, "led me at once into the Hall of National Representatives, who were then sitting and engaged in debate. I stood in a space reserved for strangers between the entrance and the low partition which separates it from the part occupied by the members...From this point I had an uninterrupted view of every part of the hall."

Another English traveler, Henry Wansey, says: "I was struck with the convenient arrangement of seats for the members...The seats in three rows" (rising one above another) "formed semi-circles...facing the Speaker, who was in a kind of pulpit in the centre of the radii, and the clerks below him. Each member was accommodated for writing by a circular desk at each of the circular seats. Over the entrance was a large gallery, into which were admitted every citizen,...who chose to attend; and under the gallery likewise were accommodations for those who were introduced."


Any restoration of this gallery based on sufficient evidence seemed at first quite out of the question. The north wall of the house was gone and its very position lost. No trace of the gallery was visible, but, on carefully removing the wallpaper, the inclination of the old structure, its steps, and all its details became manifest by marks on the walls at each end of it, the height and exact profile of all the moldings of the front being still clearly shown on the jambs of the windows at the ends of it. The holes were found in which its beams had rested. The exact locations of two columns tangent to the front of it were clearly shown by the marks of their capitals against a beam concealed in the ceiling. The gallery was therefore carried out as shown in Plate L.


If we had to depend upon descriptions of the arrangement of the House we might well be in doubt about it. Did the Speaker sit, as some writers assert, at the south end of the room or as the weight of written evidence and an old caricature would show, upon the western side? We now know that the latter was, at least at one time, the case, for upon removing some modern flooring, parts of the original floor of the house, of yellow pine planks six to ten inches wide, were disclosed, bearing marks of attachments, clearly indicating the location at the western side of the hall of the Speaker's platform, and elsewhere of the bar of the house, which seems to have described a curve enclosing the last row of seats. Fortunately, the old floor in the neighborhood of the Speaker's enclosure was so well preserved that it was fit for use, but elsewhere it was so thoroughly rotted out as to put its preservation out of the question. Feeling that except as to their shape in plan, a restoration of the platforms and the bar would be merely conjectural, the Committee decided not to attempt it.


As the stairways and the hall of the Representatives occupied the entire first floor, committee rooms had to be sought on the second. This also, in its central and northern part, underwent grave changes, but as its original arrangement is well known and as abundant remains existed, its restoration was not difficult. As one proceeds from the upper landing of the stairways southward along a broad corridor, he finds on either side committee rooms, Plates U and W, of ample size and of a somewhat more elaborate treatment than any of the work upon the lower floor.


At the end of the corridor one enters the Senate Chamber, Plates P and R, which fortunately has suffered less from alterations than any other part of the interior. To be sure the little gallery introduced for the accommodation of the public when the Senate gave up its practice of sitting in secret, was destroyed when the room became a courtroom. Clear evidences of its level and of the traces of its moldings against the walls were found, and it has been restored as in Plate P. The stairway to it, of which evidences existed in the adjoining committee room, is reconstructed as in Plate W. When the high platform in the southerly bay in which the Judges had sat, was removed, there were disclosed, roughly sawed off and enclosed below that platform, abundant remains of an original raised enclosure with a singular curved plan, and with a balustraded and paneled front, now restored as in Plate R. The eagle above the dais, Plate R, and the graceful ceiling ornament which is shown with but poor effect in Plate Q, are original, but they have suffered from repainting. The woodwork of the mantels, Plate V, curiously out of centre, is original.


The Committee in charge of the work was fortunate in having the hearty co-operation of the city officials at all times during the fourteen years over which the work, from first to last, extended. That the Committee itself found the many problems of research, of examination, and of decision difficult, and that its members long sustained their enthusiasm and gave ungrudgingly of their time is shown by the fact that they held in all more than one hundred meetings.

The Hall was reopened October 25, 1913, the President of the United States, Committees of the House and Senate and of the State Legislature, the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia and his Directors, Committees of Select and Common Councils and a distinguished assembly of citizens being present.


Chairman of the Sub-Committee
of the Philadelphia Chapter of the
American Institute of Architects,
in charge of the restoration.

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