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.
For most users, Discover is the best place to begin a search about HSP's architectural resources. This online catalog includes information about HSP’s manuscript collections, as well as print materials, maps, microfilm, and more. Researchers may want to search for building names, architects, organizations, or other terms that may help provide insight into the topic they seek. Descriptions of all manuscript collections are available in that online catalog, and many collections have finding aids online or at HSP that provide more information.
HSP’s Digital Library is a growing online repository of images and digital files from our collections. To date, the Digital Library includes more than 75,000 images of manuscripts, maps, photographs, and prints, as well as video and audio records. Several of HSP’s most notable collections, including the David J. Kennedy watercolors, are digitized in their entirety. All images are available for purchase as both archival prints and digital downloads, and new content is added every week.
Visitors to HSP's library should also look for names and other terms of interest in our manuscripts card catalog, known as PC1 (and not available online), which serves as a name index for many manuscript items.
Atlases are essential research tools for architectural history because they often document the shape and position of individual structures as well as indicate 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.
For Philadelphia, HSP’s atlases span the period from 1858 (the first year full atlases were made available in the city) to the mid-1970s. Property owners, business names, public buildings and building materials are often noted. Atlases are generally arranged by ward number.
In addition to searching in our online catalog and HSP's Digital Library for maps and atlases, researchers may want to consult HSP's PC4 graphics card catalog, which is available only in the library's Reference Room and which catalogs HSP's holdings of maps, atlases, and other cartographic material. Information in PC4 and other card catalogs may not be captured by online-only searches.
Individual property surveys, compiled in conjunction with fire insurance policies, can provide a wealth of architectural information, including types of structures, building materials, ownership and drawings. HSP holds the surveys of the following four Philadelphia companies, each of which may be searched using a property address:
Franklin Fire Insurance Company of Philadelphia surveys, 1829-1901 (Collection 3269)
Mutual Assurance Company (Greentree) records, 1784-1995 (Collection 2189)
Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company records, 1825-1881 (Collection D0008)
Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fires records, 1839-1965 (Collection V41)
In-house indexes are available for all four companies. The Franklin Fire Insurance Company and Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company records may also be searched via Bryn Mawr's Places in Time website.
A related collection, the Hazlett and Moss records, 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.
Prints, Drawings and Watercolors
Original drawings, watercolors and lithographic prints are frequently used in visually documenting the city’s architectural heritage. HSP’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.).
In addition to searching in our online catalog and HSP's Digital Library for prints, drawings, and watercolors, researchers may want to consult HSP's PC4 graphics card catalog, which is available only in the library's Reference Room. Information in PC4 and other card catalogs may not be captured by online-only searches.
Though often sought, architectural drawings of Philadelphia’s most common structures are difficult to locate. However, HSP’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, William Strickland, Addison Hutton, and Benjamin Latrobe.
In addition to searching in our online catalog and HSP's Digital Library for architects and/or structures, researchers may want to consult HSP's PC4 graphics card catalog, which is available only in the library's Reference Room. Information in PC4 and other card catalogs may not be captured by online-only searches.
Of the more than 300,000 works on paper held in the HSP’s collections of images, the majority are photographs. Here are a few HSP collections that may be of particular interest to those researching the region’s architectural history:
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Penrose Pictorial Philadelphia collection (collection V60) is one of HSP's best collections on Philadelphia's architectural history. The photographs depict a wide variety of subjects, but the majority of the collection depicts residences, streets, and historical buildings. There are some photographs of cities and towns as well as transportation, hotels, mills, ships, and theatres. There are some views of everyday life represented by sports, recreation, and people at work. Of particular interest are the photographs of Old City buildings that were demolished to build the Ben Franklin Bridge as well as the area demolished to build the Convention Center. The photographs are arranged by subject or by address.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Photograph collection (collection V59) is a rich visual resource on a variety of topics, with an emphasis on Philadelphia and the surrounding region. Subjects particularly well documented in the collection include hundreds of local streets and residences, Fairmount Park, Friends’ Meeting houses, and historic buildings and sites. Other subjects include bridges, churches, factories, fire engines and companies, hotels, monuments, schools, societies and clubs, the Centennial International Exposition, Lincoln’s funeral, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The collection spans from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century.
The Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue (collection V07) contains the photographs taken for the Philadelphia Record, a newspaper that published from 1879 to 1947, when it was absorbed by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Photographs are arranged by person or by subject. Subjects include explosions, auto accidents, schools, churches, farms, the war effort, women workers, sports, beauty pageants, army hospitals, military veterans, railroads, Eastern State Penitentiary, and Philadelphia stores. Many photos document the Depression and World War II and include captions.
The Thomas H. Shoemaker Germantown and Philadelphia Portraits and Views (collection V86) consists of more than 12,000 images of historical places and colonial houses (many of which no longer exist) in and around the Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Mount Airy sections of Philadelphia. In addition to exterior shots of houses, there are also images of doorways and some house interiors. There are also photographs of views along the Wissahickon Creek; images of graveyards, meeting houses, and churches; various portraits; and more. While the collection contains mostly photographs, with the bulk of items dated between 1889 and 1915, there are also lithographs, india ink drawings, prints, engravings, and silhouettes.
The Jane Campbell scrapbooks and Helen C. Perkins scrapbooks, 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 in our online catalog, or through the use of indexes for each volume. An additional source is Ashmead’s Newspaper Cuttings (call number V .97), 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.
While HSP 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, contact the Philadelphia Historical Commission (Room 576, City Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19107) at 215-686-7660. For additional resources, you may want to consult the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
To request a state historical marker, contact the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's Historical Marker Program (300 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120) at 717-705-4266.
Other local repositories for Philadelphia architectural history include the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (219 S. 6th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106; 215-685-4830), the Free Library of Philadelphia (1901 Vine St., Philadelphia, PA 19103; 215-686-5322), and the Philadelphia City Archives (3101 Market St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-685-9401).
A variety of other online resources may prove helpful while researching Philadelphia's neighborhoods, including PhilaPlace, PhillyHistory.org, the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network, and Places in Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia.