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The PHS Building: 50 Years at 425

Sitting comfortably at 425 Lombard Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets in Philadelphia, the Presbyterian Historical Society building looks like it nestled into its surroundings around the time Independence Hall was built. In fact, it opened in 1967. Before Lombard Street, PHS was a tenant of the Board of Christian Education in the Witherspoon Building on Walnut Street.

Presbyterian Historical Society construction, ca. 1967. [Pearl ID: 81734]

PHS is the Department of History of the Office of the General Assembly. In 1952, new Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake initiated a review of the Historical Society’s connection to that office, which gave the first impetus to the construction of a home all its own. The review prompted John Mackay, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, to offer the Society a spot in the seminary’s proposed new library. This, it was hoped, would produce synergies of resources for historical scholars. But between the acknowledged difficulties of getting to Princeton, and the even more pressing need of the Stated Clerk to frequently access church records, the offer was gracefully turned down.

Reading Room of the WItherspoon Building, undated. [Pearl ID: 7362]
Still, the question had been raised: What housing did the church need for its Historical Society? By 1955, PHS was using the basement of the Witherspoon Building, which also housed supplies of furnace coal, to store duplicate and underused materials. A decade later the records had so exceeded the capacity of Witherspoon that paintings were hung on the ends of shelving aisles and documents housed in alleyway sheds. Custodian Ed Starzi, future PHS building superintendent, used to tease Assistant Cataloger Nora Robinson about locking her in the Witherspoon basement—a place no more fit for records than library professionals.

PHS Building Construction with Old Pine Church in background, ca. 1966. [Pearl ID: 81731]

It took a change of leadership to jumpstart action on a building project. In 1957, Alexander Mackie of the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund brought a proposal from Third & Scots (“Old Pine”) Presbyterian Church on Pine Street. The City of Philadelphia was readying to raze slums and redevelop downtown neighborhoods. Old Pine, which anticipated an influx of cash from a merger with Mariners’ Presbyterian Church and the sale of that church’s former property, suggested that Old Pine and the Historical Society jointly build a Presbyterian historical museum, which could include a library, on church land between Fourth and Fifth Streets on Lombard. The Historical Society was intrigued, but nothing happened until local contractor and ruling elder at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church John S. McQuade joined the Society’s board.

The Calder Statues during the construction of 425 Lombard Street, 1967. [Pearl ID: 8173]