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This article was prepared for the July 4, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Philly’s Patriotic Splendor
Returning home, riding down Market Street in an open summer car,
something detained us between Fifteenth and Broad, and I got out to
view better the new three-fifths built marble edifice, the City Hall,
of magnificent proportions — a majestic and lovely show there
in the moonlight — all flooded over, facades, myriad silver-white
lines and carved beads and moldings, with the soft dazzle — silent,
weird, beautiful — well, I know that never when finished will
that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen
minutes. — Walt Whitman, 1879.
Two decades after the "good gray poet" remarked
on that "magnificent pile," its construction was complete.
By 1901, City Hall — huge and white, with a massive tower topped
by a 37-foot-tall statue of William Penn — dominated Philadelphia’s
Center City. Today, still holding a copy of Pennsylvania’s charter,
Penn faces the northeast riverfront site where he signed the treaty
with the Lenape Indians in 1682. But his skyline exclusivity has been
breached by other buildings: City Hall is surrounded by a bustling
city. It is also marking its 100th birthday — what better occasion
to pay a call?
Any one of the "fast facts" about Philadelphia’s City Hall
could be reason enough to visit that "marble elephant" in
the middle of Penn’s "greene country towne." How else to imagine
a structure comprised of 88 million bricks and containing nearly 700
rooms, one of which is bigger than every city hall in the country
and larger than the United States Capitol building? Nowhere else could
you see the tallest statue on any building in the world, or what is
probably this country’s premiere example of French Second Empire architecture
— with more than 250 pieces of architectural sculpture by Alexander
Milne Calder, the first of the three generations of Calders who have
left their artistic marks on the city.
"Center Square" was the name Penn had given the four-and-a-half-acre
site that Philadelphia voters selected in 1870 for their second city
hall — the first one, in this city whose development moved west
from the Delaware River, had been next to Independence Hall. One of
five squares designated for the checkerboard-patterned city, it was
intended for future public buildings. Erected between 1871 and 1901,
City Hall was designed by John McArthur Jr. to be the tallest structure
in the world, but construction took so long that the Washington Monument
(555 feet) and the Eiffel Tower (about 1,000 feet) were finished first.
Yet at 548 feet, City Hall remained this country’s tallest occupied
building until 1908.
Still the world’s largest masonry load-bearing structure, City Hall
is surfaced largely of marble — which alone represented over 20
percent of the total construction cost — granite, and limestone.
Because architect John McArthur believed they were higher quality
than the machine-made variety, most of the building’s bricks were
hand-made. As construction went forward, the estimated cost of $8
million escalated to $25 million; only as money was available could
The tower’s foundation is 22 feet thick, and its height, to the top
of the hat on the William Penn statue, is 548 feet. In a case of "Honey,
I inflated the icon," let the record show that Penn’s bronze self
wears a hat that is 23 feet in circumference; his nose is 18 inches
long, his mouth, 14 inches wide. One foot is five feet long, while
an arm is more than 12 feet long, and overall in this incarnation,
Penn weighs 27 tons. This is hardly the "life-size" figure
that some ground-level tourists might suppose.
Bestriding his narrow world like a Colossus, Penn oversees a structure
whose floor space comes to more than 14 acres, or 630,000 square feet.
Its French Second Empire architectural style harks back to buildings
constructed during the time of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), nephew
of Napoleon I. As Emperor of the French (from 1852 to 1871), he established
the Second Empire and rebuilt Paris in grand, imperial fashion. Considered
majestic, the building style was characterized by elements like the
tall Mansard roof (its name derived from that of 17th-century architect
Francois Mansart), dormer windows, classical pediments, and paired
columns. The ornamental style, sometimes called "horror vacui,"
for its apparent fear of unadorned surfaces, made it suitable for
monumental buildings and inviting for sculptors. During the presidency
of Ulysses S. Grant (1869 to 1877), Second Empire became a preferred
style for America’s public buildings, sometimes referred to as the
"General Grant Style."
Until 1987, a gentlemen’s agreement had assured that City Hall would
be the tallest building in Philadelphia. Then, with developer Willard
Rouse’s upstarting One Liberty Place, Penn’s hat was topped by about
400 feet. Now, five other buildings dwarf City Hall — at least
as far as height is concerned. And another is planned. It’s axiomatic
these days that bigger is better, and so the skyline keeps climbing.
Meanwhile, the business of Philadelphia still takes place in City
Hall — both in mundane settings and sumptuous ones, too, judging
by a few showcase areas included in the daily tours of the building.
The Mayor’s offices and reception room are on the second floor. Serving
as the building’s official ceremonial center, the impressive reception
room is lined with portraits of former mayors (with a spot awaiting
Edward Rendell’s image), all lit by an extravagant eight-foot chandelier.
Two floors up, and through tall, black wrought-iron
gates, the square, blue-carpeted Council Chamber houses, elegantly,
the weekly meeting of Philadelphia’s 17-member City Council. Gilt,
marble, and alabaster chandeliers mark this chamber, and a mezzanine
level accommodates spectators and demonstrators. (Those who watch
Philadelphia-based TV news will recognize the setting.) Nearby, the
Council Caucus room with domed ceiling, double columns, and brown-toned
stone walls looks almost medieval; a big round table in the center
is surrounded by leather chairs. While judicial branch environs are
not part of the tour, about 70 courtrooms are still here, though most
are in the new Justice Center.
One of the more striking of City Hall’s unique features is its cantilevered
stairways, found in the four corners, or corner pavilions, of the
edifice. Each 156-step flight was fashioned from a single, self-supporting
granite slab, and accented by bronze and brass balustrades. The building’s
wide corridors often include built-in art, such as original polished
marbles, hand-carved woodwork, tiled wainscoting, painted ceilings,
and wrought iron grilles. On the second and fourth floors, the halls
also house display cases for the "Art in Philadelphia" program,
featuring shows by three different artists each year.
All by itself, City Hall is worth the trip. But it’s not all by itself
— it’s smack dab in the middle of Philadelphia, the literal city
of brotherly love, where myriad other diversions and excursions beckon.
Sharing the same neighborhood are the Reading Terminal Market and
Philadelphia Convention Center, and the Masonic Hall. A little farther
west, via the Champs Elysee-like JFK Boulevard, is the Rodin Museum
(with more of the French sculptor’s work than anywhere outside Paris)
and the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art.
To first-time drivers in Philadelphia, City Hall can represent a huge
impediment to travel. Centrally located as it is, at the intersection
of Broad and Market Streets, it compels motorists — often looking
for street signs or parking facilities — to navigate a fast-moving
round-about. Moving from east (the Delaware River) to west on Market
Street, the driver must "go through" City Hall; same with
moving south (Veterans Stadium) to north on Broad Street. Even to
veteran Philadelphia-philes who remember "meeting at the eagle"
in Wanamaker’s department store (now a Lord and Taylor store), this
circular ride can present a challenge. One advantage: a parking facility
right across the street from City Hall, where you can park for the
day (albeit at city rates) and fan out from there.
After "rounding City Hall" and entering Whitman’s "magnificent
pile," visitors from such diverse places as Germany, South Korea,
Chicago, Lake Tahoe, south Jersey, and a school on nearby Arch Street
are drawn to the weekday lunchtime City Hall tour. Departing from
the building’s tour information center in Room 121, East Central Portal,
volunteer guides usually lead this walk around, discoursing on Philadelphia
and City Hall history; the building’s architectural features; and
some of those who have frequented the place. ("Thatcher Longstreth
has been here for about 427 years," a guide told our group in
the City Council caucus room.) The Foundation for Architecture also
sponsors walking tours around City Hall that focus on Second Empire
Design. The next ones are scheduled for Saturday, July 14, and Saturday,
August 4, both at 4 p.m. Unlike the free weekday tours, these tours
cost $8, $7 for students and seniors.
Volunteers sing the praises of Greta Greenberger, of the Foundation
for Architecture, who is director of City Hall tours and educational
programs. For nearly a decade, Greenberger, an art educator and exhibition
designer, has been on site. She supervises one part-time staffer and
23 volunteers, develops publications, sometimes fills in for volunteer
guides, and regularly conducts pre-arranged tours for school children
and other groups. She also serves on the task force looking into ways
to make City Hall all it can be. As a protected national historic
landmark, it cannot be torn down, but the question of how it might
best be kept viable and intact and a continuing part of city government
— remains to be answered.
Greenberger’s most surprising activity in the line of duty was climbing
the statue of William Penn — three times. It was in scaffolding
at the time, she says, and no, she wasn’t tied to anything, and she
never looked down. While she was up there, she took pictures and obtained
definitive measurements for Penn’s "whole nose length" (18
inches), and other features often incorrectly cited. Little wonder
that Greenberger is matter of factly described as the person in the
city who knows the most about City Hall. The numbers show that she
and her staff shared that knowledge last year with close to 6,000
children from schools and summer programs; and with 4,000 more people
who took the lunchtime tours. More than 35,000 visitors took the trip
to the tower.
The myth is that at one time visitors could climb into Penn’s hat
and overlook the city. Not so. The observation deck — the only
one, ever — is 484 feet up, right below the base of Penn’s statue.
It is reached by elevator, and during the trip, visitors can look
out at those thick brick walls. Finally, they can walk around the
deck and identify, through its curving windows, both the natural and
human-made wonders of the Philadelphia area. Coming full circle so
that from the edifice the poet had admired, the Walt Whitman Bridge
is visible. It opened in 1957 — 65 years after the poet’s death
This year marks City Hall’s 100th birthday — an event that has
not gone unnoticed. A two-month-long celebration began in May with
the opening of an art show inspired by "Philadelphia’s glorious
and grandest building," and ended in June with the "Mayor’s
City Hall 100th Birthday Ball." A new souvenir guidebook is being
readied for publication, and artist Peter Max has followed in the
Calder footsteps in his own way by creating a big banner commemorating
the 100th anniversary to hang at City Hall’s West Portal.
For information on tours call 215-686-2840. Website: www.Phila.gov.
For information on walking tours by the Foundation for Architecture,
including Philadelphia City Hall, call 215-569-3187.
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