Construction of the Pennsylvania State House, later known as Independence Hall, began in 1732 and was completed in 1753. The building has performed many functions, including being the warehouse for the "memorabilia" of the American Founding and the inspiration for the Christy painting in the first half of the twentieth century. The National Park Service, in 1950, decided to return the building to its original appearance in anticipation of the bicentennial of the signing of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These two signings make Independence Hall the most sacred ground in the political history of the United States.
Americans are the beneficiaries of the concerted efforts, first by the state of Pennsylvania and second by the National Park Service, to restore and revitalize Independence Mall. This historic area is bounded by Race Street on the north, Chestnut Street on the south, Sixth Street on the west, and Fifth Street on the east.
A sort of "dueling architecture" has emerged in this "sacred" area of the American founding. On the south side is Independence Hall and accompanying buildings that have an authentic late Eighteenth Century feel to them. And then there is the new home of the Liberty Bell, the Visitors Center, and finally the National Constitutional Center located on the north side at Fifth Street and Race Street that have a more futuristic tone to them.
There are three Birch paintings of Independence Hall.
The first is called "State-House with a View of Chestnut Street." This is probably painted from a spot near the current location of the Liberty Bell. Situated to the east of Independence Hall is City Hall which the United States Supreme Court occupied in the 1790s. According to Jacob Hilzheimer, a prominent Pennsylvania politician and Philadelphia resident, there was a tavern right across the street from Independence Hall. According to his diary entry on March 12: "After the House adjourned, about fourteen of us spent the evening at the Tavern opposite the State House."
The second Birch painting of Independence Hall is on "the other side" of the building. The front side, which is on Chestnut Street between Fifth Street and Sixth Street, is the one usually displayed. But there is this other, and more picturesque, side to Independence Hall that extends between Fifth Street and Sixth Street all the way to Walnut Street. Sometimes this area is called the State House Yard. It was a spot where people would gather to hear speeches, like James Wilson's famous Statehouse Speech that helped launch the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, or gather to chat about the events of the day. See for example, the clusters of people in the Birch painting including the group of Native Americans who are probably in the capital to discuss the practical implications of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that bestows on Congress the power to regulate commerce with "the Indian tribes." This is not the only time that Birch has portrayed Native Americans in Philadelphia. See his painting of the new Lutheran Church.
The third Birch painting is called "State-House Garden, Philadelphia" and it also portrays the rear side of Independence Hall that is away from the hustle and bustle of Chestnut Street. The Birch painting shows a wall that encloses the luscious garden and grounds on the south side. There is, however, an arched entrance to the "naturalistic styled" garden from Walnut Street.
Independence Hall has had a varied history since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution. But it never did revert to its original purpose as the location of the Pennsylvania government. The Pennsylvania government moved elsewhere in 1800.
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) painted the "noted worthies" or "celebrated personages," of the American Founding and created his own museum in Philadelphia. He lived and worked at his home on Third and Lombard Streets. Peale, however, moved his "Philadelphia Museum" to the Philosophical Hall area in the 1790s because his collection had become too large to be housed in its original location. But his collection kept growing and by 1802 numbered in excess of 250 paintings. Thus he decided to display his work in the more spacious upper floor of Independence Hall from the early 1800s until 1828 when his family moved it "across the street" upon his death. According to Doris Devine Fenelli, this project to create an independent Peale Museum collapsed and, in 1854, the collection was sold, item-by-item, at auction.
Several of these "museum portraits" were purchased by civic-minded Philadelphians and made available for viewing in Independence Hall in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The official opening was on George Washington's birthday in 1855. A lithograph in 1856 by Max Rosenthal, a Polish immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1849, captures the notion of Independence Hall as the first ever National Portrait Gallery. Note the Peale museum portraits hanging on the walls, the William Rush statue of George Washington, and the Liberty Bell, on top of which a bald eagle is perched, all on display to the public. (See the Herter painting as well as the commentary on the Christy painting elsewhere on this site).
According to Doris Fenelli, "before and during the Civil War, the Assembly Room of Independence Hall achieved a growing recognition as a shrine to liberty." The body of Abraham Lincoln lay in state in the Assembly Room. According to John C. Milley, "thousands queued for twenty-four hours dumbfounded, incensed, at a loss to explain how such a senseless thing could have happened." Fellini reinforces this point: "In April 1865, more than eighty-five thousand people filed through Independence Hall to pay their last respects to President Abraham Lincoln, whose body lay in state in the Assembly Room for two days." (See also Charlene Mires, Independence Hall in American Memory, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, for a thorough account of the changes that took place inside Independence Hall over two centuries. She refers to the work of Max Rothermal rather than Max Rosenthal.)
In 1872, in anticipation of the centennial celebrations, the city of Philadelphia decreed: "Independence Hall is hereby set apart forever, and appropriated exclusively to receive such furniture and equipments of the room as it originally contained in July 1776, together with the portraits of such men of the revolution as by their presence or action served to give the building its historic renown, and forever endear it to the hearts of patriots." This decision led to yet another renovation of Independence Hall and, most importantly, "a restoration of the Hall to its original appearance."
According to Finelli, the initial transformation of Independence Hall from shrine to museum is due in large part to the work of Albert Rosenthal, the son of Max Rosenthal, who with the support of the Independence Board painted several copies of the Founders and had them hung in Independence Hall. According to Finelli, the Rosenthal duplicates raised questions in the art community about the overall authenticity of the other paintings in the collection. During World War I, it was estimated that 118 of the 342 paintings in the Independence Hall collection were Rosenthal copies.
The sesquentennial of the Declaration, the Great Depression, and World War II, actually restored the notion of Independence Hall as shrine rather than a museum. Maybe it could be both shrine and museum. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 authorized the National Park Service to preserve property of "national historical significance." Congress named Independence Hall a national historic site in 1943. Independence National Historical Park was created in 1948. These Peale portraits of the founders were, in turn, moved to the Second Bank in 1974. Similarly, the motivation was, no doubt, the forthcoming bicentennial anniversaries in 1976 and 1987.
[The above reproductions of Independence Hall in the second half of the Nineteenth Century are courtesy of the Independence National Historical Park and the Library Company of Philadelphia.]