“One of the greatest beginnings in all of history began in this little room.” So says historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough about Carpenters’ Hall – the small 50′-by-50′- structure set back off the 300 block of Chestnut Street.
Often overlooked by tourists and Philadelphians alike, Carpenters’ Hall is a marvelous example of extraordinary architecture. It’s also where Americans took their first step toward independence from Britain. Robert Smith, the city’s most important master builder/architect, designed the building.
Here in late 1774, the First Continental Congress – with delegates from twelve of the Thirteen Colonies (Georgia was missing) – met for 52 days to respond to the Intolerable Acts passed by Britain.
Rather than meet at what is now Independence Hall, the delegates reportedly chose a spot less public … and where they were less likely to be coerced by Joseph Galloway, Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the Colonial Assembly. His views toward England were too conservative for many of the more radical representatives.
Today’s building is far more finished than it was in 1774. Funds were low. The interior was “very plain,” says an insurance survey. And both the building’s frontpiece and arch for the fanlight would not be completed for about 18 years.
The members of the Carpenters’ Company were not carpenters as we know them today. In reality, they were “master builders,” combining the talents of architect, contractor and engineer.
- The Carpenters’ Company published a secret Price Book or Rule Book for various kinds of construction. Members could be expelled for showing it to outsiders. Even Thomas Jefferson was refused a copy. When a member died, the Company called on the widow to retrieve the book. But it also provided pensions for widows, educated children of deceased members and even helped some find positions as apprentices.
- The nation’s first bank robbery took place here in 1798 – when the hall was temporary home to the Bank of Pennsylvania. The loot: $162,821. Although Pat Lyon, the blacksmith who had just changed the locks on the vault’s doors was imprisoned for three months, he was later released and awarded $12,000. The actual culprit: Isaac Davis, a member of the Carpenters’ Company. Stupidly, Davis began depositing large sums of money into the very bank he had just robbed. Under questioning, he confessed, returned the money and never served a day in prison.
- Ben Franklin and John Jay met secretly in Carpenters’ Hall with a French emissary on three nights in December 1775. Their talks later led to critical French support of the colonists’ war efforts.
- Many companies rented space in the building, including the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Custom House and others. C. J. Wolbert & Co., an auction house, was the last tenant. The Carpenters’ Company terminated its lease and opened the building to the public as a historic monument in 1857.
- The Continental Congress returned here briefly in June 21, 1783, says member and noted preservationist Charles E. Peterson – “when their usual meeting place – the State House – was besieged by mutinous veterans of the Continental Army” who wanted to be paid. It then fled to Princeton.
Visit Carpenters’ Hall soon. Inside you’ll see a detailed model of the building and much more. It’s free, a key part of our city’s and country’s history and well worth a trip. David McCullough says, “To me, it’s one of the most eloquent buildings in all of America.”
Name: Carpenters’ Hall
Address: 320 Chestnut St., Phila., PA 19106
Open: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays, year-round; Closed Tuesdays in January and February.
Owned By: The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia
First Meeting: 1771 (before it opened)
Claim to Fame: This remarkable building was home of the First Continental Congress, Sept. 5 to Oct. 26, 1774
Awards: Named a National Historic Landmark in 1970
Famous Guests: Queen Elizabeth II of England and Prince Philip visited in 1976; King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden in 1994.