© Nancy Davis
At the turn of the 19th century a tavern was still more than merely a place to eat and drink. It was the nerve center of the community—a meeting room, convention hall, business forum, news center, gossip mill, hostelry, classroom and library—not to mention other more frivolous diversions such as dining, dancing, and concerts of various sorts. —J.M.
City Tavern was a "large commodious new House . . . intended to be kept as a genteel" establishment on the order of a tavern in London, England, when built in 1773 by subscription of wealthy residents. Opened just in time for the heady events of the next two decades, it was a place for entertainment, for argument and for celebration.
During the Revolutionary War, depending on which army was occupying Philadelphia, Loyalists or Rebels danced and sang in the spacious rooms of the tavern, or celebrated the departure of their enemies from the city. But by the middle of the Federal Period, when Washington lived in the President's House on Market Street—and certainly by the time of Lewis's visits—City Tavern was no longer Philadelphia's "principal hostelry." It had become the victim of poor management and was displaced by rivals. Its new name, the Merchant's Coffee House, appropriately indicated its primary role as an exchange for maritime commerce, and implied a change to a more sober and sedate atmosphere. A fire partially destroyed the building in 1834.
Because structures deemed historic or venerable in our day were not necessarily recognized as such in the busy years of the nineteenth century, City Tavern was razed in 1854, ultimately to rise again as an exact reconstruction of the original in time for the bicentennial observance in 1976, thus experiencing a resurrection not accorded even the President's House.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program