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The collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania document Philadelphia’s rich residential and commercial architectural history from the colonial period through the 20th century with sources as diverse as original architects’ drawings to real estate development brochures.
Atlases are essential research tools for architectural history because they often document the shape and position of individual structures as well as indicating their use and the principal building material. Additional information about the context of the structure, including the nature of the neighborhood around it and the changes that occur over time, may also be drawn from atlases. The Society’s atlases span the period from 1858 (the first year full atlases were made available in Philadelphia) to the mid-1970s. Property owners, business names, public buildings and building materials are often noted. Atlases are generally arranged by ward number.
Individual property surveys, compiled in conjunction with fire insurance policies from one of four Philadelphia companies, can provide a wealth of architectural information, including types of structures, building materials, ownership and drawings. The Society holds the surveys of the following four companies, each of which may be searched using a property address:
The Franklin Fire Insurance Company (records c. 1837-1900)
The Philadelphia Contributionhip (records c. 1900-1940)
The Mutual Assurance (Greentree) Company (records c. 1780-1975)
The Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company (records c. 1830-1890)
A related collection, the Hazlett & Moss Papers, contain the records of a real estate company active in residential development in the city and its suburbs from 1902 to 1927. The records include information on address, date, block plan, building type, ward number and county. The Franklin Fire Insurance Company and Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company records may be searched via the Places in Time website. In-house indexes are available for all four companies.
Prints, Drawings and Watercolors
Original drawings, watercolors and lithographic prints are frequently used in visually documenting the city’s architectural heritage. The Society’s extensive holdings include the works of Philadelphia artists and engravers Thomas Birch, Max Rosenthal and Peter S. Duval. Of particular note are the works of three watercolorists: David J. Kennedy, Benjamin R. Evans and William L. Breton. These artists, active throughout the 19th century, sought to record the past and the present of the city they knew. As a result, many watercolors exist which document structures demolished or otherwise lost. Individual graphics collections are often arranged by address, residence owner and subject category (such as churches, manufacturers, Pine Street, etc.).
Though often sought, architectural drawings of Philadelphia’s most common structures are difficult to locate. However, the Society’s collections include the works of some of the city’s most active architects, and serve as an excellent resource for many noteworthy structures. Specific architects represented include Horace Trumbauer, Cope & Stewardson, Frank Furness, Addison Hutton, and Benjamin Latrobe. Some collections are available through the online catalog at www.hsp.org, or on-site indexes.
Of the over 300,000 works on paper held in the Society’s collections of images, the majority are photographs. Of particular interest to those researching the region’s architectural history are the Boise Penrose Collection, which includes images of the Old City Philadelphia structures demolished to make way for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge; the Society Photograph Collection, which similarly records hundreds of city streets; and the Philadelphia Record Newspaper Photograph Collection, which includes photographs of many commercial and public buildings. Most collections are arranged by address or subject, and inventories are available for some.
The Jane Campbell and Helen C. Perkins scrapbook collections, assembled at the turn of the 19th century, are rich sources for researching structures in Philadelphia. Newspaper clippings, photographs, advertisements, and the compilers’ own comments make up the majority of the collections. Volumes are arranged by subject or geographic location, and include categories such as Churches, Streets and Old Philadelphia. The collections are cataloged and available online, or through the use of indexes for each volume. An additional source is Ashmead’s Newspaper Cuttings, a 49-volume set compiled for the period 1878-1902. Though unindexed, the volumes are arranged chronologically, and often contain clippings from real estate and related newspaper columns.
Many of the Society’s published and unpublished holdings are available through the online catalog available at www.hsp.org. Links for collection-specific finding aids and databases may also be found at the website. Reference questions may be directed via email to ReadyReference@hsp.org or by calling 215-732-6200 x209.
While The Historical Society of Pennsylvania encourages historical preservation and research, it does not certify buildings or locations as historic. If you would like a house or building to receive historical certification, you may wish to contact your local historical commission. In Philadelphia, it is the Philadelphia Historical Commission (Room 576, City Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19107) at 215-686-7660. To request state historical markers, contact the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (300 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120) at 717-787-3362. Other local repositories for Philadelphia architectural history are the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (219 S. 6th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106), 215-685-4830 and the Free Library of Philadelphia (1901 Vine St., Philadelphia, PA 19103), 215-686-5322.