Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is flanked by two buildings, one is Congress Hall, where the country’s first congressional sessions took place, and the other is Old City Hall. It is actually the city’s second iteration of a city hall and it did not exclusively serve as such for much of its existence. Designed by David Evans Jr., in the Federalist style, Old City Hall was completed in 1791 and served this purpose until 1854. The current city hall was completed in 1901. Old City Hall shared space with the U.S. Supreme Court until 1800 when the federal capital moved to Washington D.C. It is part of the Independence Hall Complex which is contained within the larger Independence National Historical Park.
first city hall was located near the Delaware River on 2nd Street
and was built during the lifetime of William Penn. Construction on the city’s second city hall,
now known as Old City Hall, began in 1790 and was completed the next year. This simple building is an excellent example
of Federalist architecture and features Palladian windows. The mayor’s office and council chamber were
located on the second floor, while the first floor was home to the Mayor’s
Court. However, it came to share space
with the United States Supreme Court while Philadelphia served as the federal
capital from 1790-1800.
of a Supreme Court was called for in Article III of the U.S. Constitution and
the Judiciary Act of 1789 brought it into being. It first met in the Merchants’ Exchange
building of New York City and later transferred to Philadelphia, to join the
rest of the federal government, in 1791.
It initially consisted of a chief justice with five associate
justices. However, during its early
years, the Court had little power. In
fact, it heard no cases for the first two years of its existence. Also, the justices served as “circuit riders”
as the country was divided into different “circuits” or courts. They often considered cases along side local
judges despite the travel difficulties this practice created. This practice was abolished in 1891.
real case of significance heard by the Supreme Court was the Chisholm v. Georgia case in 1793. In this case, a resident of South Carolina
sought to recoup payment from Georgia for goods supplied during the Revolutionary
War. The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. However, the decision was overturned by
passage of the 11th Amendment to the Constitution. Another case of consequence was the 1794 Georgia v. Brailsford case that dealt
with the issue of repaying debt after the colonies gained their independence
from Britain. This case was reenacted in
2016 by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito
in Old City Hall.
Hall also served as the volunteer headquarters during Philadelphia’s yellow
fever epidemic of 1793. Many African-Americans,
working under the umbrella of the Free African Society, to include Richard Allen
and Absalom Jones, labored within Old City Hall to ease the pain of the
afflicted. Additionally, Old City Hall
hosted municipal government courts and served as the city’s immigration center
during the 19th century.
Today, visitors can view the room where the Supreme Court met, which has
been adorned with period furnishings, although not all are original to the