Sharon Ann Holt, Ph.D
Research Associate of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies
University of Pennsylvania
We were able to find one description of the area in 1750, just as it was being developed. The description, focussing on the 600 block, noted that the lots for sale were "pleasantly situated for any person inclining to live retired."14 At this point, surely, the 500 block also was still comfortably remote from the busiest parts of the growing city. However, we could not find any images of the block in its "natural" state. We also found a description of the Masters Penn house, which became Robert Morris's after a devastating fire, and which he rebuilt for George Washington. This is filed in the folder for the property, labeled "526/528/530 Market."
There is also a watercolor of the Washington house, drawn from memory by David Kennedy. The structure of the house seems to have been somewhat disputed, though the best evidence points to an assymmetrical front, with a door on the right and two windows center and left. Kennedy's image doesn't match this, so we can't say what it may be worth. The image also suggests a very low density occupation of the south side of the block. Only three large buildings, one of which has two appendages, appear in the Kennedy watercolor. We do not know whether buildings were omitted for artistic purposes, to highlight the buildings the artist which the viewer to notice, or whether the paucity of buildings reflected the artist's memory.
The earliest images of the block from life are in Birch's views in 1799, and they indicate a high density of settlement on both sides of High Street. One of Birch's views looks west/northwest along High street from inside the market shed between 3rd and 4th. The north side of the 500 block is thus in the middle distance, and not worked out in great detail, but it is clear that the block is thoroughly built up. A second engraving from the same perspective, but including the funeral procession for George Washington again shows the 500 block in the distance entirely built up.
A third view looks east toward the market shed from Ninth street. Here again the 500 block is visible in the distance, this time the south side of the street. It too appears densely built up. Since these views are executed within a year of Washington's occupancy of the house, we are inclined to discount the Kennedy watercolor as evidence of the block's density of settlement. Both the Birch's views and the public record of land transactions on the block support an argument that the block was well developed by the 1790s.
The next view of the block comes from a J. C. Wild engraving of 1838, the original of which is at the Free Library, and which is reproduced in Nicholas Wainwright, The Golden Age of Lithography. Again, as with Birch, the 500 block is in the middle distance, but the roofscape can be compared to that of buildings visible on Chestnut street. The Market Street buildings again are clustered close together, standing three and occasionally four stories, some with dormers, a mix of pitched and flat roofs, and mostly narrow and long. Lot sizes on both sides of the street remained very stable from the original development through the 1850s. Owners might engross buildings, but the buildings remained confined by the original frontage. Surveys done for successive occupants indicate remarkable stability in the size of lots over two centuries of built occupation.
The only image we have been able to find of a back-alley building is a Falconer etching of what purports to be the north east corner of 5th and Minor streets. The purpose of the etching is hard to discern. The building shown is dilapidated and seems to be put to shady if not downright disreputable uses, but Falconer gives it the distinction of being called "Independence Hall." Curators at one time seem to have thought that the building was the house in which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but this view has been entirely rejected by later curatorial experts. Since it is the only image from the back alleys, it might be worthwhile to consult with art historians to determine its meaning and reflect upon its accuracy as a representation of this corner.
Several images taken after 1850 show the new buildings built on the block
after the 1830s. Though the available images are later than 1850, insurance
surveys suggest that the buildings long predated the images. These images
are included with this report to suggest the genre of building most recently
build on the site, and to complement the detailed descriptions available
from the insurance surveys. We cannot, however, promise with certainty,
beyond what is available from the insurance surveys, that particular buildings
existed at particular times. Since the block never had very much truly distinctive
architecture, it seemed wise to tolerate a certain fuzziness about specific
dates in order to give a visual impression of the character of the block
as a whole.