Situated on the corner of Chestnut and 5th Streets in Philadelphia, Old City Hall was built between 1790 and 1791 and was intended to serve as the seat of the municipal government. The mayor’s office and council chambers were on the second floor, while the Mayor’s Court occupied the ground floor. This was actually the city’s second city hall. The first was located near the Delaware River on 2nd Street and contained the city jail on the ground floor. As soon as the Independence Hall complex was constructed along Chestnut Street, the city’s municipal government moved there. During the 1790’s, Philadelphia served as the new nation’s temporary capital while the District of Columbia was being constructed. So in August of 1791, the Supreme Court of the United State began to hold its sessions on the first floor of the Old City Hall building, sharing space with the Mayor’s Court. Initially, the Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) was comprised of a Chief Justice and five associate justices. They enjoyed neither the same prestige nor power back then that they do today. Serving on SCOTUS was strenuous and dangerous because of the “1789 Judiciary Act” which divided the thirteen states into three “circuits”. This required the justices to travel around the country attending to the circuit courts ( two justices for each circuit). Along the way, they encountered “...flea-ridden, out-of-the-way inns, dirt roads, shaky coaches, and often had to ford rivers...”. As a result, SCOTUS was plagued with resignations (during its first 12 years, it took 12 men to fill the six Justice places). The Supreme Court was supposed to meet in Philadelphia twice per year, but because of the travel hazards and resultant sicknesses, they often could not muster the required four Justices minimum to hold a session. During its tenure in Old City Hall (1791 until 1800), three prominent Chief Justices served on SCOTUS; John Jay, John Rutledge, and Oliver Ellsworth.
During much of the 18th century, thousands of immigrants passed through Philadelphia. As a result, many Naturalization Ceremonies took place in the Old City Hall courtroom. After the Supreme Court left for Washington, D.C., the building continued as the city hall until 1854 (when the new city hall was constructed). Today, the city of Philadelphia maintains ownership of the Old City Hall building while leasing the property to the National Park Service as part of the Independence National Historic Park.