Corrections or additions?

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

work proceed.

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

in 1892.

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.

Philadelphia City Hall , Broad and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

For information on tours call 215-686-2840. Website:

For information on walking tours by the Foundation for Architecture,

including Philadelphia City Hall, call 215-569-3187.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments