Sharon Ann Holt, Ph.D
Research Associate of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies
University of Pennsylvania
We found stuff! Research turned up significant occupants of the 500 block for every period since it was first developed in the 1740s. John Kinsey, son of an original patent holder, lived and died at 508 Market, one of the first houses on the block. Kinsey junior, born in New Jersey, served the state of Pennsylvania as a judge and as speaker of the state assembly. After Kinsey's death in 1750, the Pennsylvania Hospital first opened its doors at his Market Street home, only moving to its better-known site at 8th and Pine in 1756.1 In the Revolutionary years, the block hosted John Dickinson, famous for voting against the Declaration, less famous, perhaps, for serving first as an officer, and then as a private in the Revolutionary Army. From 1791-1797, President George Washington rented a home on the south side of the block from Robert Morris. Washington evidently preferred to walk to work on the sunny side of the street, as he reportedly routinely strolled out of his house, crossed to the north side, and then headed toward 6th street, only to walk back south toward his presidential office.
When the national government left Philadelphia, the neighborhood quickly transformed itself into a beehive of workshops and stores, mixed with modest homes. Portrait painter Jacob Eicholtz and architect John Haviland lived on the block, while Thomas Sully lived just down 5th street toward Chestnut. The artists would be followed by merchants of the stature of Caleb Cope and John Wanamaker. Each of these men in his own way became part of the history of the city and the nation.
The block's humbler residents have their stories to tell as well. Philadelphia's driving growth appears in the names of residents, as Penn's experiment in religious tolerance brought German Eckfeldts, Jewish Eslers, and French Douradores to live next door to Pembertons, Kinseys, Hudsons and Burrs. The London Coffee House in Front Street, where many a 500-block property went up for sale, also saw the sale of slaves, some of them destined for 500-block addresses as well. Abraham Kinsey at 510 Market St. advertised for a runaway enslaved man in 1760.2 Thomas Yorke, who lived mostly in Germantown, but owned several lots and a fine mansion at 507 Market, was also involved in the recapture of runaway servants and slaves, for himself and for others.3 The buildings themselves recount the developing history of the city and of its great merchant families. The elegant homes sitting alongside artisan shops in the 18th century were scooped up and renovated by the entrepreneurs of the early republic. Nearly renovated to death by the 1830s, these old structures came down to make way for enormous new warehouses of brick and cast iron. Three of these, Tower Hall and Oak Hall on the south side, and on the north side Jacob Sulger's restaurant (#519) with its elaborate cupola and clock, marked the block with their distinctive and original designs.
Philadelphia's vigorous merchant concerns outgrew these buildings too. Soon enough the ambitious and successful had to add furnaces and gas lighting, then they broke through to adjoining buildings, always looking for more space. They renovated, added stories, pasted fire escapes on the outside, and more. By the 1950s, a century of this haphazard and energetic growth left the buildings on the block again in need of the wholesale renewal they had experienced in the 1830s and 40s. In the event, the buildings came down to make Independence Mall.
The great open vista to Independence Hall may serve well our need to
contemplate the achievements of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional
Convention. But the crowded, disordered, overbuilt block which used to be
there was strikingly eloquent about the real dramas of our life as a nation.
In their pluralism, their pacifism, and their pecuniary ambition, the 18th-century
residents of the 500 block could testify both to why the Continental Congress
met here and why Pennsylvania was so reluctant a supporter of its own revolution.
The boom years of the nineteenth century suggest that, however reluctant
to break away, Pennsylvanians quickly organized to make the most of their
new chances. Taken together, all this activity and all this diversity suggest
as nothing else can the complex politics of American independence as a continuous
happening. There is more than enough in this story to carry the thoughts
of visitors and of those who live here beyond the shrine of independence
and into the work of citizenship.