Philadelphia is home to some of the USA’s most stunning – not to mention oldest – architecture. Many of these buildings, of course, could still be considered ‘new’ by European standards. But what’s fascinating about Philadelphia’s oldest buildings is that they also reveal the story of the nation’s early years, as well as the transitions that occurred throughout America’s first full century as a country.
Most of the buildings featured in this Philadelphia architecture guide are within easy reach of the city center. Rather than alphabetically or chronologically, the buildings below are divided into categories based on their original function.
Temples & Churches
Philadelphia Masonic Temple
Regardless of your interest in Masonry, no architecture enthusiast should miss a visit to the Philadelphia Masonic Temple. Just across from City Hall, the temple is as centrally located as you can get. And that’s fitting, as many of the nation’s founding fathers were Masons, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Statues of the duo, in fact, can be found right outside.
The temple continues to function as the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Not only is it impressive from the outside, but various meeting rooms within the temple pay homage to architectural styles from around the ancient world.
Constructed in 1873, it was designed by architect James H. Windrim. Amazingly, he was still only 27 years old at the time of its completion. The grand exterior is characteristic of the Norman style (of Normandy, France). But some of the stone used in the exterior is Syenite sourced from Egypt.
The inside, on the other hand, was designed by interior designer George Herzog. (He’s also behind some of the rooms of City Hall across the street, as well as the St. Agatha–St. James Roman Catholic Church).
The temple is open to the general public for tours which cost $15. From Tuesday to Saturday, tours begin hourly between 10:00 and 15:00. Reading reviews online, opinions vary depending on who the guide was. In my case, the guide was informative and friendly, but it all felt very rushed, with no more than a few minutes allowed in each room. But it was still well worth it.
The Oriental Hall (also called the Moorish Hall) is an homage to the 13th-century Alhambra in Granada, Spain. It’s one of the more unique and impressive rooms of the entire temple. Even the ceilings have been intricately designed with patterns resembling lotus flowers.
Interestingly, this hall is located in the space originally intended for the kitchen. As such, it’s the only hall situated on the first floor.
The Gothic Hall is an homage to the Knights Templar, which Freemasons see themselves as descendants of. While not as colorful or flashy as the other rooms, it features elegant hand-carved oak chairs.
The rest of the room is rife with Templar symbolism and other Gothic features. Notably, it’s the only hall of the temple built on a north-south axis rather than east-west.
The Ionic Hall is noteworthy for its 24 columns and large portraits of past Masonic Grand Masters. As the name suggests, its design was influenced by ancient Ionia, which is now western Turkey. At different points, the region had been controlled by both the Persians and the Greeks.
One of the most noteworthy rooms of the temple is the Egyptian Hall. You don’t have to know a lot about the Masons to notice that their architecture and symbolism have been heavily influenced by ancient Egypt. Some Masons even see their order as following a lineage that goes all the way back to the Egyptian mystery schools.
Supposedly, the decorations on the pillars and walls are exact copies of hieroglyphs and paintings that can be found at temples in Luxor. And the faces above the main columns are those of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.
The Norman Hall matches the temple’s exterior, which, as mentioned, was built in the French Norman style. It reflects the interior of 11th and 12th century Norman churches. Its most prominent motif is its numerous round headed arches.
In addition to rooms designed in the Renaissance and Corinthian styles, there’s also a Grand Banquet Hall that can be rented out for weddings or other functions. In it, a huge statue of Benjamin Franklin towers over the entire room.
Back on the first floor, don’t miss the free museum, which contains Masonic regalia in addition to ancient artifacts from Egypt and even some Toltec pottery fragments. Furthermore, you can also find a model of Solomon’s Temple in addition to George Washington’s Masonic apron.
Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
This cathedral is the head church of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Recognizable for its vaulted dome, it also happens to be the largest brownstone structure in the city. The cathedral was completed in 1864 by architect Napoleon LeBrun, who was only 25 years old at the time.
The interior, which was designed by Constantino Brumidi, is renowned for its mosaics and stained glass windows.
You can find it at the intersection of 18th street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not very far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Historic Arch Street Quaker Meeting House
The Quakers were among the very first residents of Philadelphia, not to mention the United States as a whole. Led by William Penn, a group of Quakers set sail for Pennsylvania in the 1680’s, turning Philadelphia into a thriving city well before the USA became a country.
The land on which this Quaker Meeting House stands was granted to the Society of Friends (the Quakers community) by Penn himself in 1701. But this building wasn’t constructed until over a hundred years later in 1805. It’s still used as a Quaker meeting and worship center to this day.
St. Mark's Church
Situated on Locust Street, St. Mark’s Church is an Anglo-Catholic church completed in 1849. It was designed in the Gothic Revival style by architect John Notman. It can be spotted from afar thanks to its huge tower.
St. Agatha - St. James Church
Located at the intersection of 38th and Chestnut Street (not far from the Penn Museum), this Catholic church was completed in 1887. It was designed by local architect Edwin Forrest Durang. And as mentioned above, the interior was designed by George Herzog, the man behind the various halls of the Philadelphia Masonic Temple.
Independence Hall is one of America’s most iconic buildings, and no visit to Philadelphia is complete without seeing it. Construction took place between 1732 and 1748, while the steeple was added in 1750. It was originally known as the Pennsylvania State House, serving as the state’s capitol for several decades.
The building is representative of the Georgian style of architecture which was popular in England and its colonies in those times.
Inside these walls, numerous meetings took place that would greatly change the course of world history. From 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in secret in the Assembly Room to discuss the contents of the Declaration of Independence. And they also elected George Washington as general for the upcoming rebellion. It was also just outside these walls that the Declaration would be read publicly for the first time.
Later in 1787, the contents of the United States Constitution were discussed and debated in the same room.
Tours are free for all visitors, but you first must visit the Park Ranger’s office north of the Liberty Bell. (Yes, it’s actually managed by the National Park Service.)
They’ll then give you a ticket for the next available tour. Understand that unless you go first thing in the morning, there may be hours of waiting time in between obtaining your ticket and the start of the tour.
Along with your visit to Independence Hall, be sure to visit the Liberty Bell across the street. The famous cracked bell was originally placed at the top of the steeple.
Standing at where Broad and Market streets meet, Philadelphia’s City Hall is one of the city’s most central and important structures. While it officially opened in 1901, it took 30 years of construction to complete, meaning it should qualify for this list.
The building was designed by architects John McArthur, Jr. and Thomas Utsick Walter. Amazingly, it was the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion.
The central tower is topped with a statue of William Penn. While it can be difficult to see from the ground, it weighs as much as 53,000 pounds and stands at 37 feet tall.
Visitors can take an elevator to the top for more views of the surrounding area (sadly, it happened to be out of order during my visit).
First Bank of the United States
Alexander Hamilton headed the Treasury Department during George Washington’s presidency, and he sought to create the country’s first national bank. His main goals were to help states pay off war debts from the Revolutionary War, as well as create a new national currency.
There was much debate, however, over the constitutionality of a national bank. Thomas Jefferson, for example, felt that a national bank would give too much power to the federal government. Nevertheless, it was signed into law in 1791.
The building was designed by Samuel Blodgett, who was both a merchant and an architect. It was built in an imposing Greco-Roman style using Pennsylvania Blue Marble.
The charter for the bank only lasted until 1811 and was not renewed. The building was then purchased by Stephen Girard, becoming the Girard Bank in 1812. The Second Bank of the United States was later established in 1816 at a different location.
Merchant Exchange Building
Located in the Old City neighborhood, this structure was built in 1832. It was designed by William Strickland, who’d also designed the Second Bank of the United States.
The asymmetrical design features a flat front but a circular colonnade on the eastern facade. Both sides feature Corinthian columns which were typical of the Greek Revival style that was popular at the time.
From its inception, the building operated at a brokerage house, but was eventually replaced by the Philadelphia Stock Exchange in 1875.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Located on Broad Street, the Academy was completed in 1876 as part of the Philadelphia Exposition, which marked the 100th birthday of the United States.
Designed by architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt, it was the first structure in the United States to be solely dedicated to the fine arts.
The building mixes Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival styles, among others. The eye-catching exterior features red bricks, pink granite and brownstone.
In addition to its impressive interior, the museum is one of the best places to see American fine art. But contemporary art exhibits are occasionally hosted here as well.
Officially known as The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the museum was first founded in 1887.
The university’s artifacts were originally stored in the Fisher Fine Arts Library (see below). But the collection grew so big that a new space was constructed from scratch to house them.
The main wing was designed by architect Wilson Eyre and was largely inspired by northern Italian architecture. The curved eaves and walls of the exterior are decorated with colorful mosaics, while a spacious pond and garden sit in front of the main entrance.
It opened on December 20th, 1899, just barely making the cutoff for our list.
The museum itself should not be missed by anyone with even the slightest interest in archaeology and history. You can find an original tablet of the epic of Gilgamesh along with a slew of other Mesopotamian artifacts.
Philadelphia History Museum
Located on S. 7th St, this 1826 building was the original home of the Franklin Institute. It was designed by architect John Haviland during the Greek Revival boom in American architecture. Interestingly enough, this is the same architect who designed the Eastern State Penitentiary.
As the name suggests, you can still come here to learn all about Philadelphia’s fascinating history from Monday to Fridays.
Edgar Allan Poe House
This building is much more famous for its former inhabitant than for its architecture. The influential horror writer lived in a number of different homes in the Philadelphia area over the course of several years, but only this one survives. He stayed here briefly in 1843 before relocating to the Bronx.
Despite his fame today, the author struggled to make ends meet during his lifetime. To make matters worse, his wife was stricken with tuberculosis. Poe was often holed up in his writing room, churning out work to pay the bills. It was in this house, in fact, that he penned the story The Black Cat.
The bottom floor is home to a small museum dedicated to Poe’s works and life. And be sure to take a trip down to the dark cellar! Fittingly, a crow statue can be found outside, while a mural of the author’s face adorns a nearby building.
Located in between Arch and Quarry streets, Elfreth’s Alley is the largest continually inhabited group of residences in the United States. And they remain remarkably well-preserved to this day.
The structures, which mostly date back to the 1720’s, are still homes that ordinary people live in. But that doesn’t stop daily visitors from coming to explore and photograph the cozy alleyway. For a moment, you may even forget you’re in the United States, as the atmosphere feels much more European than American.
Supposedly, some of the houses allow visitors inside from time to time, though they were locked during my visit.
Society Hill is a historic residential district just south of Independence Hall. It was settled as far back as the 1680’s by the Free Society of Traders who were associated with William Penn.
After decades of neglect and decay, the neighborhood was largely restored in the 1950’s, and is now one of the most desirable places to live in Philadelphia.
The area is easy to reach, and it’s definitely worth taking some time to explore its streets and brick houses. You can find both examples of Georgian and Greek Revival architecture.
Occasionally, you’ll encounter informational signs detailing what a particular building was used for, or which historical figure once lived there.
The Declaration House
This unassuming brick house happens to be one of the most important buildings in American history. It was inside here that Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. The house, however, was owned by a man named Jacob Graff.
While very much within central Philadelphia today, that wasn’t the case hundreds of years ago. It was in an area considered to be the city’s outskirts. And Jefferson chose the location because it was quiet enough to focus on his work.
It took him around three weeks to finish the document. Though the original house was torn down, a replica has been built in its place.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Opened in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the largest and most innovative prisons of its time. It was the first to use a hub-and-spoke design, meaning that numerous cell blocks all connected to a central watchtower.
Operational until 1971, the prison was also one of the first to implement centralized heating and sewage systems. It was designed by John Haviland, the man behind the Philadelphia History Museum. You can learn a lot more about ESP here.
Fisher Fine Arts Library
Located right around the corner from the Penn Museum, this beautiful library was completed in 1890.
Known for its redbrick exterior and ornately designed interior, the library was designed by Frank Furness. Interestingly enough, the architect’s brother happened to be a Penn faculty member.
Academy of Music
Located on Broad Street, the Academy of Music functions as an opera hall. It was built between 1855-57, making it the oldest opera hall in the country.
The building features a German-inspired design that was created by Gustavus Runge and Napoleon LeBrun, the same man behind the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
Musical Fund Hall
Situated on Locust Street, this concert hall was first opened all the way back in 1824. It was later renovated in 1847 by Napoleon LeBrun and then again in 1891.
This was the most prominent concert hall in the city until the Academy of Music took its place.
When it come to touring Philadelphia architecture, one of the best places to stay would be Society Hill. As mentioned above, it’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of well-preserved architecture from the colonial era. Just to the north are Independence Hall and Liberty Square. And to the south of the neighborhood is South Street, one of Philly’s most popular districts for nightlife and the arts.
Also consider staying somewhere nearby City Hall. It’s located on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s busiest street where you can find a number of major landmarks and also metro stations. Also nearby is the historical Old City district.
Other popular areas include Rittenhouse Square and Chinatown. And just to the west of downtown, the University City area, home to the Penn Museum and Drexel University, is also worthy of consideration.
All of the above-mentioned neighborhoods could be considered central Philadelphia. In general, the central area of the city is clean, safe and pleasant to explore. If you want to stay further away, though, be sure to do thorough research on that area. Philly has a lot of rough neighborhoods that you’re better off avoiding altogether.