The Betsy Ross House, "Birthplace of Old Glory," in 1900 seemed much more real and revealing than today. The remarkable early photograph shows a small rowhouse from 1740 sandwiched in between commercial buildings built 150 years later. This remnant of early Philadelphia is said to be where Betsy Ross (1752-1836) lived when she produced the first Stars and Stripes flag.
The story emerged in 1870 from Ross family descendants and was popularized by the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The 1900 photograph shows the site remained legible and fascinating into the 20th century. The historic house was identified as significant, but without isolating it or attempting to turn back the clock. Life goes on and the city has adapted.
Layers of history will build-up to form a tangible record of a place and can be read as a geologist would core samples taken from the earth. Later generations are provided evidence to understand the motivations and purposes of those who lived before and may interpret its significance anew. This is in our view the most compelling argument for historic preservation.
Birthplace of Old Glory was purchased in 1936 by radio mogul A. Atwater Kent with the intention of restoring the house to create a public museum. Kent hired traditional architect R. Brognard Okie to design and oversee the restoration.
Okie was fascinated with early building traditions and with his friend, photographer Philip B. Wallace, explored southeast Pennsylvania in search of surviving examples. They became adept interpreters of historic building vernacular, recognizing the specific periods and signature details of each region. Okie was the chief designer (1936-1940) for reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, William Penn's estate on the Delaware River, and an obvious choice for the Betsy Ross House restoration.
Kent and Okie set the period of interpretation for restoration circa 1777 when the Stars and Stripes flag first appeared and removed features added later, like the double doors and shopfront window. They preserved as much of the original structure as possible and replaced missing features with salvaged materials in kind. The design was based on conjecture as much as evidence, and Okie likely embellished the modest "band box" house with more refined details than the original. However, he was cautious that the choice of features and details were period-appropriate. The 1936 renovation included a plausible "carriage house" addition to the back for furnace and toilet rooms.
The house was located on Arch Street near the Delaware River, a commercial street with a long history. The earliest known photo of the Betsy Ross House was from 1859. It shows attached buildings on both sides similar in size and scale. By 1871, we see a larger four story building on the west, and by 1900 the Ross House appears to be the last surviving Georgian era structure.
For Kent, the house looked trivial against its tall neighbors. He bought the loft building to the west and tore it down, proclaiming the hole in the street wall a "civic garden." Completed in 1937, the Ross house was opened to the public and in 1941 donated to the City of Philadelphia.
During the economic recovery after World War II many Americans bought automobiles and took to the road for vacations. Historic sites in Philadelphia became popular destinations. The attendance at the Ross House continued to increase and in 1965 an annex was built in the garden for offices and a souvenir shop. In preparation for 1976 Bicentennial events the remaining open space was developed into a courtyard featuring a modern fountain with sculpted cats. The historic site was no longer interpreted to be consistent with 1777, and it took on the quality of a theme park.
The 18th century rowhouse remained in its original location, but everything around it was demolished or historically unrelated. Blank sidewalls that once connected the house to its neighbors were exposed, like the survivor of an unexplained disaster. Visitors to the site could not tell what it would have looked like in Betsy's time, or how it ended up like this.
Modern versus traditional city building
Isolating the landmark as they did suggests how pervasive Modern planning ideas had become with their emphasis on stand-alone buildings. Modernists preferred isolated buildings set back from the street and property lines, as if in splendid isolation.
Neighboring structures were ignored, and little effort was made to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Landscape architects were called in to design a leafy backdrop for the isolated gems of Modern architects, who preferred their work to be photographed with as little context as possible.
In pre-modern cities like Philadelphia buildings were handmade in small increments and adapted to fit. New buildings took their place in a clear pattern of streets, blocks, and parcels. Only civic and religious buildings were freestanding in park-like settings. Most buildings responded to the specific context and cooperated toward spatial definition of the street.
Modernists regarded this collective aspect of traditional cities with contempt. Their idea was to limit the past to selected landmarks and raze the rest--tabula rasa--to build a new vision. Modern theorists came to dominate American architecture and planning schools after 1945 and convinced a generation of architects to reject traditional building practices.
Land use laws were also changed, to encourage stand-alone buildings that fit into an abstract and invisible zoning envelop with limits on height, lot coverage and setbacks. This was promoted to allow more daylight to reach the street and reduce the potential of spreading fires. The downside was that each parcel became a world unto itself and its context irrelevant. It did not take long for most pre-modern cities, once walkable and well-connected, to become fragmented and scattered.
Single-use zones were established to avoid obnoxious uses, like the proverbial stockyard in a residential neighborhood. But in effect this drove every land use into separate districts, isolating even compatible ones, and making the city less walkable, sociable, or appealing.
The unintended consequences of Modern zoning encouraged both suburban sprawl and massive increases in the incremental size of new buildings. City life deteriorated, and the planners' response was to up-zone central historic districts to attract redevelopment. They allowed parcels to be consolidated and huge commercial projects built. The district's small businesses, human scale and fine-grain character were lost. Streets were no longer pleasant to walk, and the lack of normal activity made them dangerous.
As cities spread they required more transportation. For some, automobiles provided a short-term competitive advantage until the streets and highways were clogged with traffic. Quality of life in historic cities like Philadelphia suffered, and drove the middle class out. Good commuter rail service from the city encouraged many to leave for the village-like Main Line suburbs.
Historic preservation and cultural myths
Betsy Ross House in context, as it appeared in 1900
The Birth of Old Glory (1917), reproduction, Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935).
Elfreth's Alley, one of America's oldest residential streets in continuous use, missed the wrecking ball and languished for decades until rediscovered and restored. The 33 individual houses were built between 1713 and 1836.
Betsy discusses her life and times with museum visitors
A nation, like a family, "requires the fulfillment of a certain kind of story, one whose endurance depends on a willful suspension of disbelief." Barrett Swanson
We might acknowledge that Betsy Ross has been a useful role model for generations of youngsters, and her story has had a long run. The Ross House continues to receive 250 thousand visitors a year and remains one of the most popular historical sites in Philadelphia. Tens of thousands of school children have toured the house and heard Betsy's story.
Visitors find a re-enactor in period dress who quietly sews and discusses the concerns of the day (1777) with anyone willing to play along. Betsy is portrayed as a defiant and independent Free Quaker who understood the creation of America as a moral proposition. Despite personal danger she was steadfast in her commitment to the vision. For Americans she represents the nation's character and fortitude. It would be a shame to lose her as we are called upon to rebuild a coherent society.
Betsy Ross House, 2011
In present day America, a society in which Edward Bernays' ideal of 'managed perception' has triumphed beyond his wildest dreams, parables are no longer tolerated.
Creating a better setting for Betsy's House
When the Ross House was restored in 1936 Kent should have left the adjacent buildings in place. As the museum grew some of this space could have been adapted for its use, like admissions, office and exhibition space, an orientation theater, or shop. This would have allowed the historic house to be furnished as appropriate for a house museum. Arch Street, with over two centuries of history, would have remained legible, if not as coherent as Elfreth's Alley.
Visitors to nearby Elfreth's Alley, a quiet lane of historic three story houses still lived in, find its atmosphere and scale captivating. As people walk through they will notice even the smallest features. One could easily visualize life in this neighborhood two hundred years ago, suspend disbelief, and allow their imaginations to explore the realm between romance and reality.
The Ross House does not encourage anything of the sort, and its lessons are less than engaging. Being ready for instruction and ready for insight are not the same. Instruction implies absorbing and integrating prescribed information. The path to insight is more a willingness to see things anew, suspend the obvious, and engage one's imagination.
A better setting for the Betsy Ross House could still be realized. Gaps in the street wall on both sides of the house could be filled with new buildings similar in scale and style to those seen in early photograph. This is what the National Park Service did on Market Street in 1976 at the entry to Franklin Court. Five Federal period rowhouses designed by traditional architect John Milner were built from extant party walls. Public access to Franklin Court is through a portal from sidewalk, and the same could be done here. A period appropriate courtyard would provide space to marshal group tours and purchase admission. Along Arch Street building fronts would connect, and visitors could see a plausible historical setting.
This would seem a reasonable proposal to most people, but today any proposal to emulate 18th century rowhouses would be ridiculed by modern architects and preservationists alike. We would be told this is "false history" and a betrayal of the zeitgeist. Our critics could not rest until plans were dropped or designs so mangled anyone could tell they were modern buildings. Too bad.
If an appropriate setting for the museum could be realized, most people would prefer historically competent designs with a plaque to identify the year of construction.
Postcard, "Betsy Ross House Where the first American Flag was made. Philadelphia, Pa."
Betsy Ross House courtyard as it was developed in 1974. Tour guides await deployment at the cat fountain.
1 July 2019
Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin's 1763 house and printshop, is only a couple blocks south of the Ross House. Not a trace of them could be seen when a major new museum was planned and built there for the 1976 Bicentennial. The buildings were demolished in 1812 before photography, and no drawings had been found. Excavations revealed only small fragments of foundations and privy pits. The ground plan could be extrapolated, but nothing to suggest the exterior character of the buildings.
The National Park Service awarded the contract to design the new museum to Philadelphia architects Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown. The site was cleared of latter construction and the open space reclaimed. The program was to show Franklin's house and printshop, and below, to build a 30 thousand square foot museum dedicated to his life and work.
The architects were keenly aware that historians would attack any scheme that speculated on the design of the buildings with so little evidence. To prevail, Venturi took the historians' position to its inevitable conclusion. He proposed a thin tube steel outline of the two buildings without detail or scale references, except three chimney-like outlines sitting on a ridge. Ground plan included four concrete hoods to shield windows over the fragments they found. Entry to the underground museum was through a covered arcade (left in photo, but later removed) with what looked like an over-scaled rail fence from a suburban rambler.
Scale cues and designs were intentionally tongue-in-cheek, but Venturi's potential critics had been silenced. The American Institute of Architects gave the project a National Honor Award in 1977. Apparently, no one asked if the ghost frames were even necessary. Their location and size reveal nothing special and offer little to stimulate our imaginations.
The cartoon-like quality of the architects' design was intended as a parody and snub of picturesque historicism. If you were looking for some cultural continuity or comfort in the past— well, forget it. What is amazing about this strange project is that it included the two extremes of preservation theory. At the opposite pole of the Venturi scheme, John Milner Architects reimagined the five lost Federal era townhouses based on the party walls, fire insurance records, and an impressive knowledge of historic building traditions in Franklin's Philadelphia.
Similar view from 1976 with reconstructed Federal rowhouses and portal at far end of Franklin Court. Benjamin Franklin's house and printshop once stood where "ghost frames" are placed. Museum was built below open space.
Mark Cohn Photo
Five reconstructed Market Street rowhouses (c. 1786-1804) with arched portal entrance to Franklin Court. John Milner, Architects, 1976
This 1950 view of Franklin Court site looks north to the arched portal at
Market Street. The five Federal era rowhouses have gained
two more floors and evolved into sweatshops.
1859 photo of Ross House (to right of lamppost) shows near-twin addition for cake bakery. Building on the right is still a compatible height. Frederick de Bourg Richards photo
1871 photo of Ross House shows within 12 years a four story building has replaced its near-twin, and the scale of development is increasing.
M.P. Simons photo
Betsy Ross as an American folktale
A 1917 painting by Edward Percy Moran, The Birth of Old Glory, shows an early twentieth century interpretation of the unveiling. We find Betsy transported from tight quarters above her Arch Street shop to a fine Colonial Revival house in the suburbs. There is a welcoming glow in the fireplace, geraniums basking in the sun, and General Washington is speechless before her creation.
National myths are ideology in a narrative form. The stories we tell ourselves confirm shared values and inspire civic virtue. They support social cohesion by emphasizing a common vision, and thereby reduce class and ethnic competition. In the United States, despite its diverse population citizens have historically cooperated when essential and crossed boundaries of class and ethnicity.
In the retelling of myths, we separate ourselves from the present and connect to broader ideals. The role of fables and parables is to excite the imaginations of young people. Betsy Ross is an American folktale, a historical figure to personify the character and grit of the Founding Generation.
As with all parables the lessons are not definitive but encourage further questioning. They open paths of inquiry for young people, and lead to provisional understandings that may change as they mature. Interpretations and emphasis depend on present needs. Myths must be adaptable to remain relevant.
Illustrator Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) offered a renewed view of the Betsy Ross story around 1950. In his painting we find Betsy surrounded by her proud family as she sews the flag. They appear in a comfortable living room of a Colonial Revival house illuminated by the morning sun. The high-key color palette suggests a bright future for these children, who are smartly dressed and ready for school. In the foreground we see their books and an apple for the teacher. The nation's patriarch, George Washington, presides over the scene with confidence. Cornwell is reassuring Americans that their unique experiment in self-government will survive if they can maintain the historic character of its people.
Since the 1950s historians have been busy debunking the nation's foundation myths, and the Betsy Ross story was an easy mark. Prevailing opinion among them today is this was unlikely the Arch Street house where Betsy Ross lived, and she probably did not design or sew the first American flag. The story was introduced in 1870 by William Canby, her grandson, and popularized with no further evidence beyond the family's claim. In the post-Civil War malaise, it is not surprising it was accepted and celebrated.
In present day America, a society where Edward Bernays' ideal of managed perception has triumphed beyond his wildest dreams, parables are no longer tolerated. Truth is dispensed to Americans through six media conglomerates, and they are careful to stay on message. The mainstream media limits acceptable debate and marginalizes dissent. It sets the agenda, frames the issues, and shapes popular opinion by an endless repetition of official stories.
There is always the danger of myths being exploited for nefarious purposes. Since 9/11 Americans have seen an undeniable push to equate patriotism with militarism, and to manufacture consent for unprovoked invasions and wars. Identity politics has been widely promoted to fracture society, and dilute opposition. The classic divide-and-conquer strategy has undermined national cohesion and allowed a tiny minority of political zealots and sociopaths to dominate policy.
A culture under attack decays from within for lack of shared vision and purpose. Mythology and historical lore are conduits to transmit cultural values, and to foster affection for one's nation and people. Without a sense of solidarity or a stake in the nation's future we are merely isolated individuals and competing tribes.
The recent painting, Tribute to Betsy Ross #6, by Ray Mack (born 1985) says it all. The artist takes ghoulish delight in satirizing the Stars and Stripes parable, and we see that a grotesque people have created a Frankenstein monster.
Betsy Ross, by illustrator Dean Cornwell (ca. 1950)
Edmund Bacon, renown Philadelphia City Planning Commission Director (1949-1970), stands over the model of Society Hill Towers by I.M. Pei and Associates, 1960, a super block that replaced a traditional neighborhood.
Tribute to Betsy Ross #6 (2016), Ray Mack, oil on canvas, 72w 68h