Sharon Ann Holt, Ph.D
Research Associate of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies
University of Pennsylvania
The 500 block of High/Market street was included in the section of Delaware River waterfront William Penn acquired from two Swedish settlers, the Swanson brothers, after he arrived in 1682 to find most of "his" land already occupied.5 The Swedes had surveyed the tract a few months before dealing it to Penn, but had done nothing else to it. Thomas Holme plotted the space for Penn and Penn sold patents on the block from 1683 through the 1730s, but the properties did not see development until the 1740s.
Only a handful of the block's original patent holders became residents of the city, the most important of which were William Hudson and John Kinsey. Ironically, neither of them purchased Market/High street frontage on the block at first; both bought backlots on the 500 block from Penn. John Kinsey's backlots were on the southside with frontage on Chestnut, though he ultimately built his home fronting High Street, just west of 5th.
William Hudson did take a patent on High Street frontage on the 400 block, but by the time he died he owned the entire block bounded by 5th and 6th streets, Market and Arch, which was thereafter known as Hudson's Square. Hudson's children intermarried with Burrs, Emlen's Metcalfe's and Owen's, and Hudson settled parcels of the 500 block on all his children and grandchildren. By being Hudson's daughters and granddaughters, a number of women came to own a substantial proportion of north side property.
The land began to see building around 1740, as the city slowly moved westward. Between approximately 1740 and 1775, the block hosted the large homes of gentlemen indiscriminately located alongside the shops and homes of artisans, grocers, and other small fry. Fifth and Sixth streets likewise housed the elite alongside the common folk. The properties on the back alleys, laid out in the 1740s and 50s, were smaller than those on High street, though there too there were gentlemen's homes (and other gentlemen's stables) in among modest artisanal shops and homes.
The block had a key role in the years of the Revolution and the early republic. Robert Morris lived on the south side, and built the home in which George Washington would live during his presidency. Washington and his landlord in fact had a fascinating, if highly civil, tiff involving the house, over the nature of leadership in a republic. Having lobbied hard to bring the national government back to Philadelphia from New York City, Robert Morris found himself criticized for profiting from the move by renting his expensive home to the president. He urged Washington, therefore, to accept the use of his residence as a gift. Washington, however, was even more loath to live for free than Morris was to seem self-serving. Washington felt that not paying a fair rent would suggest a level of high-handedness and privilege inappropriate to the president of a republic. In the end, Washington won the argument.6 More importantly for the block, perhaps, than these two notables, the Continental Congress chose to place offices of the war-time bureaucracy, including the Quartermaster General and the Clothier General, on the block. General Anthony Wayne exchanged some hot tempered correspondence with the Clothier General about the scarcity, delay in getting, and shoddy workmanship of his officers' uniforms. It also seems that two Tory gentlemen, Henry Welfling and Thomas Yorke, lost their holdings on the block in 1779. Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, lived comfortably in the elegant house Yorke forfeited.
The departure of the national government to Washington D.C. precipitated the conversion of the 500 block of High Street into a more uniformly commercial district. Market houses sprang up in the middle of the 400 and 500 blocks between 1799 and 1810. Market sheds had appeared at Front and High in the 18th century, and by 1799 had stretched to 4th street.7 The sheds on the 400 and 500 block were built by 1810 and lasted at least until 1850.
New owners began rebuilding the existing structures to suit new purposes, connecting them, replacing domestic outbuildings with counting houses, and generally drawing together the properties on the alleys with those on the main streets. By 1838, as J. C. Wild's engraving shows, the whole area north of Chestnut to Market and beyond was densely built up. The eighteenth century structures did not adapt particularly well to their new uses, and the constant cutting through and rebuilding probably hastened their deterioration. Washington's house, once by all accounts the "finest single house" in the capital city, was by the 1830s serving as a confectioner on the ground floor and a lodging house above. Its new owner judged it sufficiently deteriorated as to be judged "of no pecuniary value" and in 1833 tore it down.8 Probably thanks in some measure to their marginality and lower cost, however, the back lots and smaller properties became home to two Philadelphia artists, portrait painter Jacob Eicholtz in 1828 and architect John Haviland in 1831.
The fortunes of Philadelphia merchants grew even as the eighteenth-century
buildings deteriorated, producing a new generation of structures on the
500 block. Between 1830 and 1850 the two- and three-story brick and wood
converted domestic buildings were replaced by four- and five-story brick
and stone warehouses built specifically as mercantile establishments. These
new buildings generally had one room to a floor, plain finished walls and
stairways, skylights through all the floors, hoists mounted over hatchways
cut through all levels, and somewhere a counting room or counting house
with a fireproof closet to store company records. Many of the larger houses
boasted highly decorated fronts, compensated by stark economies of decoration
on the rear facing the alley back streets. In keeping with the Philadelphia
economy's long-standing hospitality to smaller firms, a number of these
buildings had counting rooms with fireproof closets on three of five floors,
suggesting that several independent concerns occupied different floors of
the buildings.9 It is an irony of labeling that the names of the back alleys
gained in grandiosity even as the functions of back alley property became
increasingly ignoble. Thus the descendants of the gentlemen who lived in
fine homes on "South alley" discarded the refuse of their Market
street businesses into "Commerce Street." The block, indeed the
entire neighborhood, developed as a specialty mercantile, warehousing district.
The Philadelphia and Baltimore railroad ran its tracks along Dock street
to Market and then west down the center of Market Street.10 Caleb Cope,
a merchant with concerns on both the 400 and 500 block, purchased a building
on the 400 block in 1852 that had railroad tracking running through the
interior, presumably connected with the convenient transport right outside
his door.11 The neighborhood continued as a mercantile, warehouse district
long after 1850. Gas lighting and furnaces were introduced into the buildings,
the skylights were closed up, and the openings in the floors boarded over.12
Tower Hall, in 1859 the most distinctive nineteenth-century architectural
specimen on the block (518 on the south side), lost its tower but gained
substantial front decoration in its transformation from a clothing concern
into a seed warehouse. Oak Hall, at the southeast corner of 6th and Market,
eventually became the first establishment of Wanamaker and Brown.13 Merchants
continued to enlarge their buildings and to engross buildings to either
side and to the rear, creating again the kind of chaotic, interconnected
and somewhat dysfunctional commercial space the block had seen before in
the 1830s. The warehouses built in the 1840s and 50s, however, survived
recognizably intact until the entire block was torn down in the 1950s to
make room for Independence Mall.