Robert Smith

Robert Smith

University of Pennsylvania Archives

Robert Smith renovated the first school building in 1751 and continued to work for the University of Pennsylvania as the ‘House Carpenter’. Smith built the university’s first dormitory in 1763, and a house for the first Provost William Smith in 1774.

Smith served as a prominent member of the Carpenter’s Company. The Carpenter’s Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1724, was a group of architects, building contractors, and engineers that completed projects throughout the city.

While working with the Carpenter's, Smith helped build many historically relevant buildings in Old City, Philadelphia including Carpenter’s Hall, the meeting place of the Carpenter’s Company and, eventually, the first Continental Congress; the steeple of Christ Church; Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home.

The Carpenter’s Company allowed its members to use slave labor while constructing buildings.

Carpenters Company Slaves

Articles of the Carpenter Company

It is unclear whether Smith paid slave labor fees to the Carpenter’s Company while working on buildings for the University of Pennsylvania, and thus, unclear if any slaves helped Smith. However, Tax & Exoneration records show that Smith paid taxes on ‘2 Negroes’ in 1769 and ‘1 Negro’ in 1774.

After Smith renovated the school building he continued to work for the University of Pennsylvania as the ‘House Carpenter’. Smith built the university’s first dormitory in 1763, and a house for the first Provost William Smith in 1774.

Robert Smith Tax 1769 Robert Smith Tax 1774

Pennsylvania Tax & Exoneration Records, 1769 & 1774

Regardless of whether slave labor was used to build any of the original buildings, the very first building has ties to the institution of slavery. Classes were held in the building in 1751, and renovations were completed in 1755. However, the university claims it was founded in 1740 when construction originally began. Although the building would eventually serve as a campus for the university, it was originally intended as a church for George Whitefield. 

~ VanJessica Gladney