Philadelphia as Athens of America: More than Skin Deep

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The Merchants Exchange Building by William Strickland at Walnut and Dock Streets, ca. 1859.

Philadelphia’s façade of choice used to be one bedecked with columns—and the more the better. Greek and Roman orders ruled from the late 18th century clear through much of the 19th century. Whether you had a bank, a church, a town hall, a school or an asylum, classical features conveyed the “right” message as visitors passed your portal. Want to convey a sense of wealth? Go Greek. Need to speak the language of civic importance or educational authority? Say it with a stack of stone cylinders. Folks were even willing to forgive their pre-Christian origins as they prayed behind pagan porticoes.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe gets the credit for giving Quaker Philadelphia permission to lose the red brick and cloak everything in white marble. And he practiced what he preached in 1811 when he orated that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Latrobe’s own Philadelphia commissions: the Pump House in Center Square and the Bank of Pennsylvania were (literally and figuratively) classics.

None of Latrobe’s major works survive in Philadelphia, although you can see his marble magic in other places. Latrobe went on to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond before succumbing to Yellow Fever while on the job in New Orleans. (There’s an excellent hour-long documentary about Latrobe at PBS online.)

Where Latrobe left off his students and their students picked up and carried on. There’s William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange (illustrated here) and his Second Bank. There’s Thomas U. Walter’s Founder’s Hall at Girard College and many others, including the Mercantile Library, U.S. Naval Home, U.S. Mint, Jefferson Medical College, and the First Independent Presbyterian Church.

Philadelphia as the Athens of America was always more than skin deep. The very idea that Philadelphia would inherit Greek arts and ideals goes back to the very beginning, when Penn named his city in Greek. That Philadelphia would become the New World’s center for democracy, arts and learning might have been pushed aside for a few busy decades, but it wasn’t ever entirely forgotten.

In the early 1730s, founders of the Library Company of Philadelphia had written of Philadelphia as “the future of Athens in America.” A few years before that, Philadelphia poet George Webb, who David S. Shields calls “the first major prophet of the America of Athenaeums, civic temples, and ‘new Romans’,” wrote a poem that concludes with a few relevant lines:

Stretch’d on the Bank of Delaware’s rapid Stream
Stands Philadelphia, not unknown to Fame:
Here the tall Vessels safe at Anchor ride,
And Europe’s Wealth flows in with every Tide:

Who (if the wishing Muse inspir’d does sing)
Shall Liberal Arts to such Perfection bring,
Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d,
And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind.

Webb had plenty of company believing in this big idea for small Philadelphia. No, Latrobe didn’t invent the idea of Philadelphia as the rightful heir to ancient greatness. He only reminded Philadelphians what they had long known—and urged them to put the Greek out where everyone might actually see it.