PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

Return to Home

Related Topics

Society Hill Phildelphia

Historical Preservation
The 20% federal tax credit for historic preservation is said to have been the special pet of Senator Lugar of Indiana. Much of the recent transformation of Philadelphia's downtown is attributed to this incentive.

Customs, Culture and Traditions
Abundant seafood made it easy to settle here. Agriculture takes longer.

Tourist Walk in Olde Philadelphia
Colonial Philadelphia can be seen in a hard day's walk, if you stick to the center of town.

Up Market Street
to Sixth and Walnut

Independence HallMillions of eye patients have been asked to read the passage from Franklin's autobiography, "I walked up Market Street, etc." which is commonly printed on eye-test cards. Here's your chance to do it.

Favorite Reflections
George Ross Fisher III M.D. In no particular order, here are the author's own favorites. filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler filler

In Memoriam
Charles Peterson
Henry Cadbury
Kenneth Gordon, MD
Lewis Harlow van Dusen, Jr.
Lindley B. Reagan, M.D.
Frederick Mason Jones, Jr.
George Willoughby

Charles Peterson and Amity Buttons

{Charles Peterson}
Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson, the famous architectural historian and preservationist, died just before his 98th birthday on August 19, 2004. It is to him we largely owe the redevelopment of Society Hill, and the design of the Independence National Park, as well as a host of restorations from the Adams Mansion of Quincy , Massachusetts, to the early French settlements along the Mississippi. He conceived of many national historic preservation projects, the most notable of which is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HASB) of the Department of the Interior.

The Adams Mansion

While he was most notable for large visions and huge projects, he also had a keen appreciation for fastidious accuracy in small matters, of which the Amity Button would be a vivid example. In the surviving Colonial buildings of Philadelphia, it is common to find a plain ivory coat button nailed to the top of the newel post of the main staircase. There's one in Independence Hall, another in the grand staircase of the Pennsylvania Hospital, and there is one in Charlie Peterson's own home, the one where he was the first Society Hill gentrification pioneer, a house originally built by Stephen Girard around 3rd and Spruce.

The Free Quaker
Meeting House

There is a strong tradition in Philadelphia that these strange buttons are Amity Buttons, nailed there by the Quaker builder at the moment when the new owner had fully settled his construction debt, symbolizing the amity between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Countless visitors to Society Hill have been shown these curious buttons, and it always seems to produce a warm glow of appreciation for the discovery. If you have one of these in your own house, you can be very proud.

Unfortunately, Charlie Peterson couldn't find any evidence for the truth of this fable, and you can be sure he subjected the matter to a totally dedicated search. You might think there would be some notations in the deeds, or in the correspondence of the day, or in the literature of the times. You would think that someone who repeats this tale would be able to relate where he got it, and that would lead to some letters in an attic, and that if you work hard enough, you will find it. But when the button matter came up, Mr. Peterson would suddenly become grim-lipped and sad, and repeat the mantra that there is no evidence to support the story. He even awarded prizes to architectural students for essays on newel posts, bannisters and stair rails, but no student essay ever turned up any authentication of the Amity Button story. Absence of evidence is of course not the same as evidence of absence, so it is remotely possible that the story will some day be vindicated.

Indeed, you have to believe there was something or other to start the story. Victor Failmetzger and his wife, who have a notable reputation for authenticating old house parts, relate that in Colonial Virginia it was common to have hollow newel posts on the stairway, and occasionally to find the deed to the house secreted in one of them. So the search goes on.

In fact, it always seemed likely that Charles Peterson very much wanted to believe the fable was true. But until some evidence turned up, he was going to go to his grave with the declaration that there existed no evidence for it.

Download the video player from apple.com/quicktime

(946)

The "Amity Button," a small disk of ivory or metal set in the stairway newel post, signified that the house was satisfactorily built and was paid for. This comes from the book by George McCue titled "The Octagon" Being an account of a famous Washington residence: Its great years, decline & restoration.
Posted by: Mark Reuter   |   Jul 8, 2010 11:16 PM

Please Let Us Know What You Think


(HTML tags provide better formatting)

Because of robot spam we ask you to confirm your comment: we will send you an email containing a link to click. We apologize for this inconvenience but this ensures the quality of the comments. (Your email will not be displayed.)
Thank you.