Declaration House

Declaration House

(Photo credit: Declaration House, 7th and Market streets, Philadelphia, courtesy Michael Costanza, Flickr Creative Commons)

Historic buildings that survive to the present day often become memorials to the famous people that once lived in them. Visitors will enjoy the experience of spending time within the walls of an original building that was home to someone from history they know and (maybe) admire. However, if the home of a famous person is destroyed by fire, natural disaster, urban renewal or whatever, a historical marker will usually be placed at or near the site to indicate its location; that’s usually much less of a draw for tourists, but it’s better than nothing. But what do visitors make of a building that looks like the structure that once housed a famous person, that stands on the same piece of ground as that now-destroyed original structure once did, but is itself only a replica of that structure? Is that building still worth a visit? Should the replica have any meaning for visitors? That’s the question that confronts visitors to the Declaration House at 7th and Market streets in Philadelphia.

The Declaration House is run by the National Park Service as part of Independence National Historical Park. It stands on the site of a house originally built and owned by Jacob Graff, a bricklayer. In the late spring of 1776, it became the temporary home for one Thomas Jefferson, who was in Philadelphia for the Second Constitutional Convention. Jefferson had arrived about a year earlier, having replaced Peyton Randolph in the Virginia delegation. By this point, however, Jefferson apparently was tiring of his lodgings in the heart of the city and decided to seek new accommodation. He eventually selected the Graff House, which then lay on the outskirts of the built-up area. Those of you who know Philadelphia will be shocked to think of 7th and Market streets as lying at the edge of the city; but even though Philly was the largest city in British North America at the time, it was of course much, much smaller than it is today.

Jefferson rented two rooms on the second floor of the house. Most significantly for posterity, this is where he lived while engaged with the Committee of Five, in June of 1776, to pen a rationale for why the colonies should seek independence from Great Britain. It was in these rooms where he almost certainly drafted the document we now know as the Declaration of Independence.

It’s just too bad that these rooms, and the whole house, didn’t survive to the present day.

The old Graff house was torn down in 1883 to make way for redevelopment. Before it was demolished it changed hands many times and served a number of functions, including that of a print shop and a diner. People were well aware of its connection with Jefferson and the Declaration, but that didn’t save it from the wrecking ball.

In the 1970s, with the American Bicentennial fast approaching, federal funding was appropriated to reconstruct the house. Fortunately some mid-19th century photographs of the building were in existence, so a faithful reproduction of the structure could be completed. Construction was completed on the new Declaration House in 1975. What was built is a museum that combines an odd mix of old and new (or at least what passed for new in 1975). The park service actually acquired two lots, including the Graff house site and the adjacent lot. Both lots were used to create a single, unified structure that consists of two very different elements: a reconstruction of the Graff house exterior on the original site, plus a modern annex with flat sides and a stark concrete exterior.

The result of this grafting of 18th and 20th century design styles looks very unnatural. Eighteenth century lots were very narrow, and the buildings of the time were usually built in row-home style along the length of the street, with no gaps between each structure (except for alleys and side streets). It looks weird to have a single 18th century-style structure standing on its own, with no contemporary neighbors. It looks even weirder to have a gray concrete appendage attached to one side, like some “monstrous carbuncle” (with apologies to Prince Charles, who once used the term to denounce just this sort of mid-20th century Modernist architecture).

The location of the museum is also a little unfortunate. The area around Market and 7th streets has been rebuilt many times since the 18th century, and no visible traces remain of that time period. As a result, the Declaration House is completely surrounded by modern structures. In some ways the disconcerting effect of all this is similar to that found at the Confederate White House in Richmond. It makes it very hard for visitors to get a visual feel for what the area would have looked like in the late 1700s. The building feels out of the way and cut off from the rest of Independence National Historical Park.

Visitors entering the back door entrance to the Declaration House are faced with the annex’s large wall of concrete to their left. On the concrete wall is the inscription, “On this site stood the house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.” It’s hard for someone entering the building for the first time to know whether this is actually an original historic building or a museum dedicated to Jefferson that includes a section just made to look original.

Inside the Declaration House the answer becomes clearer. The first floor is designed to look like and function as a museum, with an open exhibition space, a small theater and a small shop where visitors can purchase Jefferson-related paraphernalia.

The second floor includes a reconstructed parlor and a bedroom that occupy the same physical space as the originals, recreating the two-room setup Jefferson had while writing the Declaration in June of 1776.  While many of the items in these rooms are period, the only thing that can actually be traced back to the original house is the house key, which lies on a side table by Jefferson’s bed.

The two rooms  Jefferson rented from Graff was itself unusual for the time. Many delegates to the Continental Congress had only a single room, or even had to share rooms. Jefferson was wealthier than most of the delegates, and he wasn’t afraid to spend money. It was in his parlor that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776. He may also have hosted fellow delegates there after the official sessions had adjourned from the Pennsylvania State House, or Independence Hall as it is now known.

For writing, Jefferson used a small, portable lap desk of his own design, similar to the one on display in the Declaration House. The original desk, which Jefferson may have used to write the Declaration of Independence, is in the collection of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The parlor was also used as storage for supplies and gifts for his friends and family back home in Virginia. In rare, free moments Jefferson read books, sketched, or played the violin.

Jefferson was of course a slave owner and brought with him an enslaved African, Robert Hemings—Sally Hemings’ brother—while in Philadelphia. It is not known where Robert was quartered during Jefferson’s stay here but it was customary for the enslaved and servants to sleep in the garret on the upper floors. Jefferson’s wife, Martha, did not accompany him to Philly. Fans of the musical and film versions of “1776” might remember his wife singing in a duet with him at his Philadelphia lodgings. However, there is no record her visiting him. In fact, Martha was ill for much of this period.

Declaration House continues to be a fairly well attended site for tourists visiting historic Philadelphia, even though the museum has a number of strikes against it. Visitors are usually saddened to learn of the demise of the original—especially when they are shown photographs of that building from only 130 years ago. But they seem to appreciate the fact that a museum devoted to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence stands on the spot where that great document was actually written. Having said that, what should be done with the museum now? The structure is definitely a product of the ’70s, and inside it is showing its age. The whole museum is crying out for renovation. But where would the money come from? Given the building’s non-original status and the ugly-looking concrete structure attached to it, it’s hard to know what the park service is going to do with it.

Sources:

Declaration House, Independence National Historical Park. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/inde/declaration-house.htm

The Declaration House (Graff House). UShistory. Org. Available at http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/graff.htm

Gene Rhea Tucker. Historical References and Inaccuracies in the Film 1776. Available at http://www.uta.edu/faculty/gtucker/US1/Historical%20References%20in%201776.html 

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