City Hall reconsidered

7 minute read
Compared to what? Or:
A few kind words for City Hall

"The Folly at Broad & Market...the monstrous inchoate municipal palace."
—Newspaper headline, September 20, 1876.

"The Biggest and Ugliest Building in America."
Evening Bulletin, 1885


They were right about "Biggest": At 548 feet, Philadelphia's City Hall was the tallest building in the world when it opened in 1901. (It was eclipsed in 1908 by the 612-foot Singer Building in New York. It was already surpassed by the Washington Monument in 1884 at 555 feet and by the Eiffel Tower in 1889; but these were merely structures, monuments— not fully functional buildings.) City Hall Tower’s clock face, at 26 feet in diameter, is also one of the world's biggest, larger even than Big Ben's clock. (At 21 feet, London's chiming ticker looks bigger because the structure is shorter and fatter.) With more than 700 rooms, Philadelphia City Hall is still the largest single municipal building in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. (Yes, it’s bigger than the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It doesn't look as big because it’s dwarfed by adjacent skyscrapers— once again, an optical illusion.) It’s also the world's tallest masonry building.

As for "ugliest"— that is subjective. Walt Whitman, for one, called it "silent, weird..." even "beautiful." A 1907 book entitled Philadelphia: A History of its Growth, called it a "structure that in many respects is without equal in the world...the most imposing public structure upon this continent." Carefully worded and neutral— can't argue with that. Yet a certain "C.S." in 1877 outwardly questioned the proposed building's stylistic taste: "The building ill-becomes the city of Penn the Quaker -- plain and useful, not ornamental and expensive."

The "expensive" certainly was not subjective. The estimated budget in 1871 was $7.5 million ($1.2 billion adjusted, 2007). Construction took three decades, and by the time of completion, the cost was $24.3 million. (About $7 billion in today's dollars!) By comparison, Philadelphia's new tallest building, the Comcast Center, cost half a billion 2007 dollars.

Calls to demolish it

Needless to say, the public was outraged. Not only was the cost exorbitant, the new behemoth blocked traffic in the city's busiest intersection. So great was the outrage that soon after City Hall was finally completed, citizens called for it to be torn down. In addition to being expensive and a transportation hindrance, by the time it was finally completed it was woefully out of fashion. In 1929, a proposal to demolish all but the tower, making room for a traffic circle, was rejected. As late as 1953, when the city ran out of space in its palace, plans were again made for its demolition. City Councilman Victor Moore said that the "ugly monstrosity sooner or later must come down." No doubt, the brutalist architects in the mid-20th century were scheming to replace the masonry building with a concrete box like the Municipal Services Building across the street, erected in 1963.

Call it Second Empire, historicist, Victorian, neo-Classical, fin-du-siecle— Philadelphia's City Hall is a man-made wonder. It is constructed of 82 million hand-made bricks— no steal beams. There are more than 250 sculptural motifs— all with symbolic significance. The entrance to the city's Justice Department, for example, features renderings of cats chasing mice! Ben Franklin makes dozens of appearances of course, as does William Penn, most notably at the top of the tower. The North Entrance, used for the city's mayoral branch (and incidentally for trash pickup as well), is the most elaborate.

Civic boosters at the center of the world

Supporting the main tower are four columns, representing the four corners of the world. Africans, Asians, Europeans and Native Americans are portrayed by stereotyped figures. Animals are employed as well: An elephant represents Africa, a menacing tiger stands in for Asia, a ferocious bear for America, and an old bull for Europe. And at the center of it all: Philadelphia.

The end of the 19th Century was a time of unprecedented, unbridled, unchecked industrialism, not yet unionized and still tax-free. Money piled by the mountains for the select nouveau riche. These fortunate few burst with euphoric pride at humanity's achievements. Philadelphia, the “Workshop of the World” with its factories and railroads, stood at the center of it all and wanted to memorialize its status. Thus the city erected this magnificent monument to itself as the center of the world.

But the Gilded Age was inequitable and therefore brief. As the working class asserted itself, City Hall’s impossibly grandiose style became obsolete, irrelevant, even offensive.

The gentlemen’s agreement

"The changing image of City Hall is a wonderful example of what happens in art," the noted urban planner Denise Scott Brown observed in 1985. "There's always a reaction against the style of the most recent past. If a building can survive its next generation, then it will probably last for a very long time."

Well, City Hall certainly survived. Until 1987, it was by "gentlemen's agreement" Philadelphia’s tallest building. Since Liberty Place I broke the agreement in 1987, Philadelphia has failed to win any national sports championships. Even dressing up William Penn in sports jerseys didn't help. The curse continues, and City Hall is now the town's ninth tallest. Yet even at the feet of sleek rectangular forms and gleaming reflective surfaces, this quaint wedding cake of a building stands proud. It humbles the giants surrounding it with eloquent and poetic stories told by the allegory in its statues. After all these years, it’s still considered by many (as a city committee reported to the mayor), "perhaps the single greatest effort of late 19th century American architecture."

City Hall is currently in the midst of a multi-decade, multi-million-dollar restoration project (sound familiar?). It’s occasionally covered by scaffolding uglier than any imaginable architectural scheme that its critics complain about. But as the painting and delicate scrubbing nears completion, the gleaming marble shines brighter than ever. (By the time the building was completed, it was already tainted by unfiltered early-Industrial Revolution soot.)

Visible wiring, hidden chandeliers

City Hall’s interior is no less stunning, and no less an incongruity than its outside. Magnificent columns, mosaics, elaborate carpets, mahogany furniture and gilded decorations contrast with electricity and Ethernet wires hanging out from missing ceiling tiles. Visible plumbing and wiring— not built into the walls, and with no chance of threading miles of infrastructure into solid granite and marble— ruin the interior's carefully designed symmetry. The linoleum floors of the 1950s replaced an asphalt floor that used to turn soft in the summer, swallowing ladies' high heels. Until recently, a grand chandelier hung hidden behind makeshift cubicle walls that were originally built for added office space that ended up swallowing some of the building's finest halls. Dull metal security barricades clash with adorned cast iron gates. Wide corridors hoard precious space, and once-fancy and -roomy offices have been partitioned into a maze of
cubicles and metal file cabinets. Functionality has defeated lavishness.

At the cornerstone ceremony in 1901, politician Benjamin Harris Brewster declared, "We are erecting a structure that will in all ages to come speak to us with the tongues of men and angels." Yet in our age, thousands walk under the intricate gates, past the grand statues, unaware of the stories they tell. The subway rumbles below, shaking the tower's 20-foot-wide foundations. As I stand gaping in awe of this masterpiece, examining the details with my camera’s telephoto lens, people sidestep me, perform a double-take, and then squint up to where I am gazing, wondering in mid-walk what this strange dude is looking at.

For unmatched views of Philadelphia (unless you own a million-dollar penthouse or have a corner office in one of the high-rises) visit the top of the tower for only $5. The price of that visit is included in the $10 walking tour, where I learned the bulk of the fascinating history that I relayed in this essay.

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