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"The Artist in his Museum." In 1802, Charles Willson Peale obtained permission to use the second floor of Independence Hall for his museum. This scene shows the "long room" as a museum and gallery.
Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

After 1800

With the turn of the century, Philadelphia ceased to be a capital city. In 1800, the Federal Government moved to Washington. During the previous year, the State Government had moved first to Lancaster and later to Harrisburg. Congress Hall and the Supreme Court building reverted to the uses for which they were originally intended—a county courthouse and a city hall. The State House became an empty building, used apparently only at elections.

election at Independence Hall
City election at Independence Hall. Elections were held at Independence Hall throughout the Colonial period and for many years thereafter.
From a painting by J. L. Krimmel (c. 1815). Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Governor, on March 13, 1815, approved an act authorizing the County Commissioners of Philadelphia to take charge of the State House and to rent out the space as they considered advisable. All profits obtained were to be used to make repairs and improvements on the building.

Having released the State from responsibility for its State House, the Legislature next sought to realize from this property a sum of money to be used in building the new capitol at Harrisburg. In an act, approved March 11, 1816, the Legislature provided for the sale of the square and its buildings. This act required the Governor to appoint three commissioners (none from Philadelphia) to lay out a street, or streets, through the square "in such manner as in their opinion will most conduce to the value of the property." The square was to be divided into lots suitable for building; the total amount to be realized was not to be less than $150,000.

One section of the act, however, saved the State House. This provided that the City of Philadelphia should have the privilege of purchasing the building and square for the sum of $70,000. The City Councils promptly passed an ordinance to purchase the property and took title on March 23, 1818. This was a financial and spiritual investment unequaled in the history of American cities.

Although the City of Philadelphia had saved the State House and its sister buildings from possible destruction, it was evident that many local officials did not consider the ensemble worthy of complete preservation. As early as 7 years prior to purchasing this property from the State, municipal authorities presented the Legislature with petitions requesting that the Commissioners of the City and County of Philadelphia be permitted "to pull down the east and west wings of the state-house . . . and to erect in their place, suitable buildings for the deposit of the records of said City and county . . ." On March 24, 1812, this authority was granted by the State Government. The old wings and the committee room were demolished, to be replaced by "modern" office buildings designed by the architect, Robert Mills. These new offices consisted of two row buildings attached to the east and west ends of the State House. Often called "State House row, they were occupied by various officials of the city, county, and federal governments.

Other changes to the State House followed as a result of the City's desire to adapt it for current needs. The Assembly Room, in which the Declaration of Independence had been adopted, was converted into a court room. This was "modernized" by the removal of its paneling and the substitution of plaster and paint. Furthermore, the Chestnut Street doorway was replaced by a more ornate one, which was wholly out of keeping with the simple dignity of the structure.

Plan showing use of Independence Hall by the City of Philadelphia and the Federal Courts.
From Philadelphia in 1824. Courtesy American Philosophical Society.

The first occupant after the State government moved to Lancaster was Charles Willson Peale, who, in 1802, received permission to use the upper floor of the State House (including the tower rooms) and the Assembly Room on the first floor, for his museum which had occupied Philosophical Hall since 1794. By the terms of the agreement, Peale was responsible for the maintenance of both the building and the State House Yard.

In order to make the building more suitable for his museum, Peale removed the alterations made in 1778—79 to accommodate the Assembly, and rebuilt the long room to appear as it did during the Colonial period. The museum, which occupied the second floor of the State House until 1828, included not only an extensive collection of natural history items but also a unique portrait gallery of the great men of this Nation, painted largely by Charles Willson Peale and his son, Rembrandt. Peale also took most seriously his charge to care for the State House Yard, or Garden, as Independence Square was then known. He planted trees, added new gates and benches, and improved the walls and lawns. It was most fortunate that a man of Peale's caliber was responsible for the property's care during this dark period.

Independence Square (State House Garden) in 1800, showing brick wall and high gate at Walnut Street.
Engraved by William Birch, 1800. Courtesy Philadelphia Free Library.

After Peale's museum moved from the State House in 1827—28, the second floor was rented to the United States Government for judicial purposes. Alterations were made under the direction of the architect, John Haviland, to adapt the space for its new use. The long room was again obliterated, and the western portion of the upper floor was made into one large room for the use of the United States Circuit and District Courts. The partitions in the eastern portion apparently were retained; the northern room became the jury room for the court and the southern room, the office of its clerk. This occupancy of the State House by Federal courts continued until 1854. Consolidation of the city and districts in that year made more room necessary for city offices, and the Federal courts were forced to move. Their place was taken over by City Councils. The court room on the west was occupied by the Common Council. On the east, the partition between the former offices of the court clerks was removed, and a single room was fitted for the Select Council. These Councils occupied the upper floor until 1895.


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