Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

Those who know Philadelphia realize that it is an enormously important city with an illustrious, prestigious past. By many it is called the birthplace of a nation, by others the cra­dle of liberty. The United States was cre­ated in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Indepen­dence. The principles of the American Revolution were perpetuated in the port city on September 17, 1787, when the Federal Convention forged the Constitu­tion and referred it, through Congress, to the individual states for ratification. Both landmark events took place in the Assembly Room of Pennsylvania’s State House, a familiar edifice known today as Independence Hall.

Since 1951, the historic building has been maintained as the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park, an urban park which now encompasses six square blocks of government buildings, restored homes, venerable church­es, a portrait gallery, even an operating tavern. Historical precedent for Indepen­dence Park had been set twenty-five years earlier when oil company heir and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960) financed the restoration and reconstruction of Colonial Williams­burg in Virginia, the most noted histori­cal reconstruction project in America at the time.

Charles E. Peterson, F.A.I.A., of Philadelphia, who played a key role in the development of Independence National Historical Park, began his career as a restoration planner at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. His informal contacts with the staff at nearby Williamsburg enabled him to note their research techniques, interdisciplinary col­laboration, and thorough documentation of that restoration project. Later, during the formative years of Independence Park, Peterson built on the models of Williamsburg and similar historic restora­tions of the 1930s. His gift is reflected in Independence Park’s ability to re-create an eighteenth-century atmosphere by upholding the integrity of the historic structures within its boundaries while also respecting and reinforcing the urban character of the neighborhood.

A preservationist and teacher by nature and a militant evangelist for sav­ing old buildings by profession, Peterson joined the National Park Service in 1929 and quickly became its leading expert on historical architecture. Four years later, he organized the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) as a cooperative project of the National Park Service, the American Institute of Architects, and the Library of Congress. Originally created to provide work for hundreds of unemployed architects during the Great Depres­sion, HABS has, over the years, become the largest architectural archive of its kind in the world. It has also served as a training agency for young architects, introducing them to historic structures as well as to restoration techniques on the cutting edge.

The first comprehensive federal program to survey and document American architecture, HABS has, since its founding, recorded more than twenty-five thou­sand buildings and struc­tures throughout the United States and in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. Pennsylva­nia claims the distinction of having the greatest number of sites – more than sixteen hundred – documented by HABS. Information compiled by HABS teams consists of measured drawings, photographs, and written data span­ning four centuries of construction and covering all types and styles of buildings and structures, such as log houses, state capitols, covered bridges, skyscrapers, smokehouses, factories, and even bridges. The HABS collection is one of the most extensively used collections at the Library of Congress, where it is archived, and includes approximately fifty thousand sheets of drawings, one hun­dred and thirty thousand photographs, and seventy-two thousand pages of writ­ten data.

Since HABS began its documentation of the built environment, fully one-third of all recorded sites have vanished, pri­marily through demolition for urban expansion or for better roads and high­ways and destruction by neglect. These buildings, however, have been “pre­served” by HABS documentation. Through the years HABS has often worked closely with colleges and univer­sities, including the University of Penn­sylvania in the 1950s, and in the follow­ing decade with the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, and Moravian College in Bethlehem. In order to make HABS records available to the public, a series of catalogs has been issued to guide researchers through the collection, beginning in 1938 with the first national catalog. HABS material is frequently used to illustrate history, architecture, and his­toric preservation books, catalogs, pam­phlets, and guidebooks. And it all began with Peterson who, in a November 13, 1933, memorandum to the Director of the Park Service, proposed the national architectural survey.

During his career with the National Park Service, Peterson pioneered new construction programs at several National Parks, including Colonial ini Virginia, Acadia in Maine, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Missouri, the Great Smokies in North Carolina and Tennessee, and Hot Springs in Arkansas. His last government posts were as resi­dent architect of the Independence Park and Supervising Architect for Historic Structures in the eastern United States, a post he held from 1956 to 1962. Peter­son has been a tireless advocate for local preservation and an advisor to private, public, and educational projects from Hawaii and Easter Island to Morocco and Turkey.

Among Peterson’s impressive list of credentials are Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (F.A.I.A.), past president of the Society of Architec­tural Historians, past president of the Association for Preservation Technology, Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and Fellow of the Newcomen Society in Great Britain. In 1966, he received the coveted Louise duPont Crownin­shield Award of the National Trust for His­toric Preservation and, ten years later, the United States Department of the Interior’s prestigious Conserva­tion Service Award. HABS joined with the American Institute of Architects and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia in 1983 to establish the Charles E. Peterson Prize, given annually for the best set of mea­sured drawings of a historic building produced by students and donated to HABS.

A prolific writer who has published numerous and diverse articles. on historic architecture, Peterson edited Building Early America (1976) and served as “American Notes” editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians from 1950 to 1967. His definitive essay on the Survey in Philadelphia appeared in Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey, pub­lished by Temple University Press. He has authored the foreword to a copiously illustrated book devoted to HABS in the Keystone State, which will be released in early 1999 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

In this recent interview conducted especially for Pennsylvania Heritage, Charles E. Peterson discusses the devel­opment of Independence National Historical Park and how his involvement in it and other restoration projects have established a benchmark – if not set a the United States.


How did you become involved in historic preservation?

From a tender age I wanted to be an architect, but I certainly never thought about practicing in what could be called the “Geriatrics of Building.” Having been born and raised in a small town in the Midwest, there was not much architectural antiquity to contemplate. But I did have an interest in natural history that continued growing during my years at the University of Minnesota. That got me interested in the National Parks. When I graduated, I trav­eled to San Francisco, where I became a landscape architect for the National Park Service.

Over the next few years my field assignments included a large area from Wind Cave in Black Hills, South Dako­ta, to the southwest monuments, mainly Spanish mission and Indian sites. About 1930 the Park Service began to develop historical areas, and J was posted to the East at Williamsburg, Vir­ginia. J became immediately involved in setting the general plans for the York­town Battlefield project. This included the restoration of the ancient Moore House where the British General Corn­wallis’ surrender was negotiated. The first campaign of restoration on that wooden structure produced a good impression, and the Park Service received many favorable reviews on it.

From then on, the Park Service pro­jects in the East developed substantially. The New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Park Service the responsibility and authority to operate and develop all the National Battlefields and some six hundred other parks. I was given the title of deputy chief architect, and recruited a staff of some two hundred persons.

One of my primary responsibilities at the time was to become acquainted with the local experts and pique their interest and enlist support for the National Park Service. I ended up spending three nights a week in Pullman cars visiting areas I had never before heard of in order to arrange master plans and building plans for a great number of buildings and landmark struc­tures, historical and otherwise.

What was the purpose of the His­toric American Buildings Survey and how was it fulfilled?

While the justification for HABS in the very beginning was to relieve the unemployment distress of the time, the architectural profession then recognized the value of early American design and the need to make available information about it, particularly pho­tographs and detailed drawings. This became the official purpose of the Survey. We were fortunate that the Fine Arts Division of the Library of Congress took a special interest in HABS and, along with the entire architectural profession, contributed their time and effort to the project far beyond the financial compen­sation.

After World War II, when architects were in great demand, it became neces­sary to find competent students to con­tinue the work of HABS. We were able to demonstrate that, when properly direct­ed, students could produce superior records. Many of those young architects would later become leaders in historic preservation. The need for such leader­ship is striking today. The International Style has eclipsed early American architecture in academia and many university faculties have little knowledge of, or interest in, it.

Before the Colonial Williamsburg restora­tion project in the 1930s, was there any real concern for historic preservation In the United States?

The concern for historic preservation began long ago in this country, and we know of a few early examples in Philadelphia. Peter Kalm, a Swedish visi­tor in the mid-1750s, wrote of an old house being preserved as a landmark of the early days here. Also, the steeple of Independence Hall, which was missing for decades, was rebuilt in 1828 by archi­tect William Strickland. The new steeple was generally considered to be a restora­tion, though it was much more attractive than the original. Another admirable Philadelphia restoration project was at Carpenters’ Hall which was restored as a patriotic shrine in 1857. In addition to those sites, other individual sites such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Civil War battlefields were rescued long before the Williamsburg project.

To what extent did the work of the National Park Service reflect techniques employed by the staff at Williamsburg?

The large scale restoration work at Williamsburg was initiated by the Boston firm of Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, under the close supervision of architect William G. Perry. They set up an advisory board of architects known to have knowledge of Tidewater buildings and built up a drafting room of young men, a few of whom had had experience in historical work. There was a great passion to learn details of the local carpentry and mason­ry. I was well acquainted with the staff, especially at the junior level, and was able to learn from them. It was a timely opportunity because the architects were later eased out by the Rockefeller lieu­tenants. Today, I believe, there is not a single architect on the payroll of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

When the Williamsburg project first began, some of the local architects com­plained that the site was being “Yan­keefied” by northern carpetbaggers. But the success of the project was soon nationally recognized, and examples of Colonial Williamsburg architecture would be seen everywhere.

After my office was moved to Wash­ington in 1933, the Park Service did ben­efit from the informal experience I gained in my association with the Williamsburg staff. And we did employ a few Williamsburg veterans, most notably Thomas Tileston Waterman. So there was some influence that carried over to the Park Service, especially at sites where Waterman worked, such as Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park, Washing­ton, and the Ford Mansion at Morris­town, New Jersey.

Can you describe the original plans for Independence National Historical Park as conceived by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission?

Judge Edwin O. Lewis was the real force of both the Shrines Commission and Independence National Historical Park itself. In my opinion, he was a statesman of unusually shrewd insight and perhaps the only politician who had the stamina and persistence to succeed at such a tremendous undertaking. As you can imagine, the National Park Service was understandably eager to add Inde­pendence Hall to its string of national landmarks and nearly every one of the Judge’s wishes was dutifully carried out for that reason. But there was one prob­lem. Judge Lewis was only concerned with the buildings on Independence Square, Carpenters’ Hall, and Christ Church. The remainder of the standing structures were, in his estimation, of lit­tle or no significance and could be elimi­nated in favor of grass and trees. He was also keenly interested in the landscape value of water fountains.

Over many years, a series of plans had been put forward with the idea that some of the decaying commercial envi­ronment should be cleared out. Those feelings were understandable during the early 1940s when so many of Europe’s historic buildings were being destroyed during World War II by bombing or fires that spread after an air raid. The build­ings to the north of Independence Hall on Chestnut Street were considered fire hazards and targeted for demolition. Planners also thought that the park should extend to the east, reaching Car­penters’ Hall. After all, the sea of parking lots that existed then around that struc­ture simply did not enhance its setting. And between Independence Hall and Carpenters’ Hall lay the great marble Custom House [today the Second Bank of the United States], which was already under the care of the federal govern­ment. On the other side of Carpenters’ Hall stood the impressive First Bank of the United States. If these sites could be linked together in a historic setting, Independence Park could become an impressive historic re-creation.

Considering that the National Park Service at St. Louis was already clearing forty city blocks on the banks of the Mississippi in order to create space for a memorial to the Louisiana Purchase, Judge Lewis felt justified in asking that Philadelphia receive the same kind of support to recognize the founding of the nation. Lewis was unyielding in his efforts at playing Harrisburg against Washington. The state would develop the Independence Mall and the federal government the National Historical Park. By the mid-1950s the demolitions had begun, and the creation of Indepen­dence National Historical Park was well underway. In the meantime, I had research to do.

To acquire standing in the Philadel­phia historical community, I plunged into studies of the historical architecture of the area. Very few in-depth studies of the buildings had ever been made. I began, in 1947, by selecting two eighteenth-century examples: Library Hall, which had been demolished some sixty years earlier, and Carpenters’ Hall, which was still standing. These studies helped to set a precedent for the Park Service that ensured the degree of authenticity necessary for acceptable restoration. A substantial staff of histori­ans was hired, and a large number of restoration reports prepared. Had those reports been published, they might have encouraged better work at other sites across the country. Unfortunately, they never were.

I made another contribution to the dimensions of Independence Park by promoting the retention of the Mer­chant’s Exchange, as well as the Bishop William White House, and the Dilworth­-Todd-Moylan, the McIlvaine, and the Kid Houses. Those one-time private resi­dences allow today’s visitors to gain a better appreciation for the social histo­ry – as well as the domestic architec­ture – of eighteenth-century Philadel­phia. Although I fought long and hard for the Jayne [1849] and the Penn Mutual [1850] buildings to be preserved as unique national architectural landmarks, the judge didn’t like them and down they came.

Many historic preservationists feel strong­ly about distinguishing between “preser­vation,” “restoration,” “reconstruction,” and “rehabilitation.” Do you?

A lot of wind has been passed in dis­cussing the difference between “preserva­tion,” “restoration,” and “reconstruc­tion.” Those who want to argue about it are usually those who have had the least experience. I believe that too much has been made of those term, especially when you consider that even a mere repainting is “restoration” of woodwork. Nevertheless, most projects incorporate some of each activity, as was the case with the structures of Independence Park. The degree of new materials added to a struc­ture often depends on what the client says he wants and is willing to pay for.

Has the work at Independence National Historical Park set a precedent for historic preservation in other parts of the country?

Whatever contributions Independence made to the field of historic preservation as carried out in other parts of the coun­try, I can’t say. We had a talented staff in Philadelphia. In fact, I would have to say that my proudest accomplishment in a long career was assembling and organiz­ing a talented group of architects from across the country to restore the his­toric structures at Philadelphia.

Much of their experience was gained on the job. This kind of opportunity attracted young architects as well as a small but talented corps of mechanics, called building restoration specialists. Later, when a graduate course of study in historic preservation was begun at Columbia University, I was appointed adjunct professor of architec­ture. The position enabled me to use my experience with the Park Service to help educate other young architects. The grad­uates of that program spread throughout the country and Canada, helping to improve the quality of restoration work.

Few American organizations have sur­vived as long as the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia. Will you briefly describe its history and current mission?

While the Carpenters’ Company was not the first of the Philadelphia trade groups to organize, it is the only one to have survived. Established in 1724, the Company was undoubtedly patterned after the medieval guilds of Britain, which controlled the local construction business. Headquartered in a hall designed by Company member Robert Smith [to whom the PHMC erected a state historical marker in 1983], the building was used by the First Continental Congress in 1774. A year later it pro­vided the setting for Pennsylvania’s Provincial Conference, an extra-legal group that set the colony on the path to war with Great Britain. For a time, Carpenters’ Hall also served as the headquarters of Henry Knox, secretary of war and George Washington’s favorite general. Since then space has been rented to many important local organizations.

The Carpenters’ Company was tightly organized, and it dominated Philadel­phia’s eighteenth-century construction industry in a period of record growth. By 1857, popular interest in the Revolution­ary period brought about the restoration of Carpenters’ Hall and formal opening to the public. It was also during this time that the Company supported an early architectural school.

When Independence Park was creat­ed, the buildings in the Chestnut Street forecourt were sold to the federal govern­ment. The Hall itself was retained and operated by the Company under a con­tract with the National Park Service.

Today, the main concern of the Car­penters’ Company is the maintenance of its Hall, but it also offers a small display of old builders’ tools and memorabilia, as well as encourages the study of Ameri­ca’s building industry. Carpenters’ Hall remains the meeting place of the Company which now convenes quarterly to hear the reports of its several commit­tees. The current membership is about one hundred, all of whom are in the building business as construction contractors, architects, or engineers.

What responsibility does the historical architect have to the public?

The fast responsibility of a historical architect is to make a living for himself and to support his family!

A historical architect should avail him­self of every opportunity to learn the technology of early building by taking whatever courses are available and read­ing the most up-to-date materials on the subject. Still, most learning in this field comes through actual experience, and the fledgling architect is fortunate if he can serve an apprenticeship under a compe­tent practitioner. Few architectural schools have teachers knowledgeable in the problems of older structures. I believe that is why their graduates have difficul­ties trying to educate clients on how to make a proper decision when it comes to restoration. Some of the most successful practitioners in history succeed simply because they argue that all the best ideas originate from the client!

What significant developments – legal, architectural, historical, financial – have occurred in historic preservation in the last decade that might indicate its future direction?

In recent years; a vast amount of money has been appropriated for “his­toric conservation.” While there have been quality examples to admire, there have also been disastrous results. Today, trade shows and seminars spring up almost everywhere. Still, experts are gen­erally lacking these days and we have to make the most of those we have. But the big money seems to be fading every­where in the face of the current down­sizing of the federal establishment. In fact; it appears that many competent career personnel will lose their jobs because of it. Worst of all, though, is the determination to “re-invent” the Historic American Buildings Survey.

The original tripartite agreement between the National Park Service, the American Institute of Architects, and the Library of Congress has been abrogated by the Park Service, and nearly fifteen years of campaigning has so far failed to restore the advisory board that was mandated by that contract. Advice from out­side has been shut off; as if to say that the feds know everything and the public be damned. Perhaps it is time to pay more attention to public opinion on this matter. After all, the government holds those buildings in trust for the true owners­ – the American people.


For Further Reading

Dickson, Harold E. A Hundred Pennsylva­nia Buildings. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1954.

Eisenhart, Luther P., ed. Historic Philadelphia, From the Founding Until the Early Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: Ameri­can Philosophical Society, 1953.

Greiff, Constance M. Independence: The Creation of a National Park. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylva­nia Press, 1987.

Historic American Buildings Survey. His­toric America: Buildings, Structures and Sites. Washington D.C.: Library of Con­gress, 1983.

Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Presence of the Past: A History of the Preservation Movement in the United States Before Williamsburg. New York: G.P. Pytnam’s Sons, 1965.

____. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1929-1949. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Peterson, Charles E., ed. Building Early America: Contributions Toward the His­tory of a Great Industry. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company, 1976.

Rains, Albert, and Laurence G. Henderson, comps. With Heritage So Rich. New York: Random House, 1966.

Tatum, George B. Penn’s Great Town: 250 Years of Philadelphia Architecture Illus­trated in Prints and Drawings. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

Webster, Richard J. Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic Ameri­can Buildings Survey. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.

White, Theo B. Philadelphia Architecture in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.


The author wishes to thank Hilda Sanchez for her valuable assistance with this interview.


William C. Kashatus, of Paoli, is a regular contributor to Pennsylva­nia Heritage. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Earlham College, a master of arts degree from Brown University, and a doctorate from the Univer­sity of Pennsylvania. A former summer sea­sonal ranger with the National Park Service, he has interpreted the history of Independence National Historical Park for visitors from around the world. He was recently named director of educational programs by the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester.