As the nation’s birthplace, Philadelphia is — by American metrics — old. Founded in the 1600s by William Penn, it was the nation’s first city and first capital, and, during the American Revolution, was the largest English-speaking city in the world after London.
But how much of that 17th-century history can still be seen in Philadelphia?
That’s what one reader asked via Curious Philly, a forum where we answer your questions about your community.
And while 400-year-old structures aren’t common, there are a couple of buildings that have been standing since the 1600s. Here are two known to have been around that long.
Home built by William Penn’s physician
Located at 5125 Woodbine Ave., Wynnestay is a historic landmark and private residence built by Thomas Wynne in 1689, according the Wynnstay Foundation. The 7,500-square-foot, two-story house rests on an acre of land in the Wynnefield neighborhood, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Wynne, William Penn’s personal physician, traveled across the Atlantic with Philadelphia’s founder in 1682, according to the foundation. Wynne did not stay in the home, instead spending time on Chestnut Street, which was called Wynne Street until 1684. It was not until after Wynne’s death in 1691 that his son, Jonathan, discovered he had not claimed acres of land west of Philadelphia owned by his family. Jonathan moved his family into Wynnestay, and it remained in the family for nearly two centuries.
Swedish church along the Delaware
Across town stands another 1600s gem. A 20-minute walk south of Penn’s Landing near Christian Street and Columbus Boulevard, the 300-year-old Gloria Dei Church still stands near the Delaware River. Built between 1698 and 1700 for Swedish settlers, the church — locally known as Old Swedes’ — served as the Swedish Lutheran Church for almost 150 years before becoming part of the Episcopal Church, according to the National Park Service.
The church and cemetery are open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The rest of the 17th-century city
So what did Philadelphia look like in the 17th century when these buildings were constructed?
When Penn arrived in Philadelphia in 1682, he commissioned Thomas Holme to draw up a plan for the new city. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Holme created an orderly, rectangular grid — the pioneering pattern that would revolutionize American city planning — that included two main streets: Broad and High, known today as Market. These streets were kept wide to prevent massive blazes, like the Great Fire of London, from happening in Philadelphia. Finished in 1683, the city plan was published in London to entice new settlers.
Before Penn named it Philadelphia, though, the area was called New Sweden. Swedish settlers arrived in the 1600s and occupied land near the Delaware River and some of present-day Philadelphia, but were in frequent territorial disputes with the Dutch.
Before that, the Lenni-Lenape tribe inhabited the land along the Delaware River. They traded with Swedish settlers, and signed a treaty with Penn in 1683. The Lenape occupied the Philadelphia area almost 10,000 years before Europeans arrived, Chet Brooks, a member of the tribe, told NPR.
While much of what we see today around our streets was not around more than a couple of centuries ago, there are some specks of Philadelphia that tell stories older than we think.