By the 1830s, you’d have thought folks might begin to grow a bit tired of seeing every last architect translating their city into the Greek. And they might have, had it not been for William Strickland’s way of combining the very old and the very new. This most creative of the homegrown generation of architect/engineers didn’t shy away from moving the game up a few notches. Strickland pulled out his copy of Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, a book that had been around for seventy years, and had long been used as a source by architects including Benjamin Henry Latrobe, John Haviland and Strickland himself.
But the stakes were higher now. Strickland faced the challenge of making architectural sense on a very prominent and oddly-shaped building lot defined by Dock, Walnut and Third Streets. And he found himself working in the shadow of his mentor’s masterpiece, the Bank of Pennsylvania. This tough site demanded a commanding solution—and an innovative one. Squeezing a rectangular Greek temple onto a triangular building lot just wouldn’t do. Strickland needed to find design solutions that were even bolder, but also more carefully considered.
And so he did. Strickland positioned on the narrow end of this wedge a raised, semi-circular portico, making this eastern façade look like a grand entrance on a civic square. (In reality, this is the grand, rounded-off back of the building. Strickland made Third Street the user-friendly entrance.)
Here, in Philadelphia, a few blocks from the city’s riverfront, facing the morning sun (the same that illuminated ancient Athens) stood Strickland’s masterpiece. Unlike his others Greek Revival buildings, this was no replica ripped from the pages of Antiquities of Athens. Here was a 3-D billboard of Greek features serving Philadelphia, here and now.
For the cupola, which pulled the entire project together, Strickland found inspiration in Stuart’s illustration of a 334 BC monument still very much standing on the streets of Athens. The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates was a self-congratulatory, 21-foot pedestal for a choral prize won at a performing arts competition, part of the same festival that produced the great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Stuart and William Henry Playfair designed literal replicas in Staffordshire and Edinburgh. Here in Philadelphia, Strickland took great liberties with the design—and achieved very American results.
He moved the “monument” from street level to the roof. He blew it up to double the size of the original making a giant 40-foot-tall, 14 feet diameter skyline-defining structure. And instead of interpreting the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in stone for the ages, Strickland designed it in wood that he knew could last only a few decades. (It would be replaced about every sixty years.) Now, far from Europe, this Pop-Art scaled, archeologically correct, ephemeral monument would echo the past. But even more important, here above Philadelphia’s 1830s cityscape, this landmark would live very much in the moment.
The Merchants Exchange, and, in particular, the tower at its eastern end, would become an essential element in a new, high-tech information network. Long before 1837, when Samuel F.B. Morse patented his telegraph (and way longer before anyone dreamed of the internet) Europeans and Americans had “optical telegraphs” capable of quickly transmitting coded messages over great distances. As early as 1807, the U.S. Congress had debated and eventually voted in favor of funding a 1,200 mile long chain of optical telegraph towers connecting New York and New Orleans – a project that fell by the wayside. But it wasn’t farfetched. More than a decade earlier, Claude Chappe’s invention, the “semaphore visual telegraph,” came to life in France as a 143-mile connection between Paris and Lille that would grow into a network of more than 500 towers across Europe extending 3,000 miles. In 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he envisioned extending the technology across the English Channel.
So when American architect William Thornton envisioned connecting North and South America in 1800, the possibilities made level heads reel. Before long, American businessmen in Boston and New York had their own optical telegraph networks. By the time the Merchants Exchange was under construction, an optical telegraph in Boston tracked shipping, commerce and investments on a real-time basis.
“Time and distance are annihilated,” became the popular proclamation, a mantra of the 1830s.
No surprise, then, that the Merchant Exchange’s cupola high above Dock and Walnut Streets played triple duty: as a perch for clerks with telescopes identifying ships making their way to and from the Port of Philadelphia, as a place to send and receive messages flashing from New York across the plains of New Jersey, and the most lasting message of all: that Philadelphia had finally come into its own as a modern day version of ancient Athens.