Robert Smith: Philly’s Foremost Master Builder

Whether you call Robert Smith a master builder, architect or just a magnificent carpenter, one thing is clear…

If you removed his many stunning Philadelphia buildings – including 8 churches – our city would be far less beautiful and impressive.

As it is, this Scottish immigrant from a family of masons has been called the most important builder/architect in the colonies. But possibly because his last name is so common, he’s simply not that well known today.

Among the 52 projects he created in his 29-year work history, though, are some of Philadelphia’s most important buildings.

The 196-foot tower and steeple added by Robert Smith to Christ Church in 1754 made it the tallest building in the country until 1810.

Smith’s masterpieces include:

The steeple at Christ Church, St. Peter’s Church, Old Pine Street Church, St. Paul’s Church and the Walnut Street Prison. Some say he designed the East Wing of Pennsylvania Hospital, too.

He also was chosen by his fellow carpenters to build Carpenters’ Hall, a huge honor.

Outside the state, he built Nassau Hall and the President’s House at Princeton, as well as the oddly named Hospital for Idiots and Lunatics at Williamsburg.

In the days leading up to the Revolution, he was Philadelphia’s go-to person for large public buildings and religious projects.

Carpenters’ Hall, designed by Robert Smith, was the meeting hall built by and for the country’s oldest existing craft guild. The First Continental Congress also met in this building.

Interesting oddities:

  • The 196-foot tower and steeple Smith added to Christ Church in 1754 made it the tallest building in the thirteen colonies until 1810 … and the tallest structure in Philadelphia until 1856.
  • An inventory of Smith’s estate reveals that he owned “Sundrey Books of Architecture and Drawing Instrumts” – and three of them are now part of the Carpenters’ Hall Library. One was not signed; one he signed Robert Smith. The third simply says: Rob! Smith His Book 1756.
  • Smith was called in to reinforce the beautiful Powel House’s famous dance floor. He added iron strappings to weight-supporting trusses, so the improved ballroom “could withstand the rhythmic vibrations of dancing feet.” George Washington, an excellent dancer, spent much time on that dance floor.

Defending the Delaware River

Robert Smith’s deadly chevaux-de-frise kept the British at bay for six weeks and helped Washington’s army escape to Valley Forge. There they lived to fight another day.

But probably Smith’s most important work was his role in keeping 250 British ships tied up in the Delaware River for about six weeks in late 1777 after its troops invaded Philadelphia.

Before that, Smith had designed and helped install 65 chevaux-de-frise in the Delaware River. He placed them near the two forts defending the city: Fort Mifflin, or Mud Island, as the British called it, near today’s airport; and Fort Mercer on the New Jersey side.

Big as two-story houses, these deadly devices had diagonal strips tipped with iron spears to pierce the bottom of British ships. Only 10 captains of pilot boats knew their locations. Loaded with ballast stones and connected with a chain to keep them in position, the chevaux were towed to crucial locations on the bottom of the Delaware.

Smith’s invention helped bottle up the British fleet and keep vital munitions and supplies from reaching its troops in Philadelphia. The delay also gave General George Washington just enough time to escape to winter quarters at Valley Forge and fight another day.

Unfortunately, Smith’s long hours overseeing the building and placement of these devices in frigid conditions along the river may have weakened him. While rushing to complete the building of barracks in December of 1776 at Fort Billingsport (current day Paulsboro, NJ), he became ill. Smith died two months later.

So he never saw the fruits of his military labors.


Name: Robert Smith
Born: Jan 14, 1722
Died: Feb 11, 1777
Buried: In an unmarked grave at the Friends Burial Ground
Claim to Fame: The leading master builder in the city.
Marker Address:  606 S 2nd St
Marker Dedication Date: 1/14/1983