Whether you love it or hate it –Philadelphia’s remarkable City Hall is unique, impressive and a world leader in several categories.
Built over a 30-year period at a cost of $24.5 million, the French Second Empire structure is the largest all-masonry load-bearing building in the world.
Without the benefit of a steel frame, this mammoth structure of some 700 rooms is larger than the U.S. Capitol building, has a floor space of 630,000 sq. ft. and may be the largest municipal building anywhere!
Atop it sits a 37-foot, 27-ton sculpture of William Penn, also thought to be the largest statue on top of a building any place in the world.
City Hall itself, at 548 ft. in height, was initially designed by architect John McArthur Jr. to be the world’s tallest building.
But because construction took over 30 years, the Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument, both taller, were completed first. Neither of them, however, is an occupied building.
The clock faces in City Hall Tower, visible for miles along Broad Street, are 3 ft. larger in diameter than Big Ben, the legendary clock in London’s Palace of Westminster. They look smaller, though, because City Hall’s clocks are 362 ft. above ground, compared to Big Ben at just 180 ft.
Architect McArthur placed a likeness of himself across from the goddess of architecture at the east portal.
While many people think the City Hall Tower has a ringing bell, it doesn’t. The bell you hear in center city is the 17-ton Founder’s Bell. It’s located at the top of the tower of the former PNB Building, One South Broad Street, across from City Hall
Thanks to a longstanding gentleman’s agreement, no building in the city could rise higher than William Penn’s Hat. One Liberty Place broke that agreement in 1987, however, when it soared past Pennsylvania’s founder by almost 400 ft.
Independence Square, where Independence Hall, Old City Hall and Congress Hall are located, was once a potential site for the new City Hall, too. After that location was wisely taken off the table, citizens voted to place the new building at Centre Square, rather than Washington Square. (Centre Square, the geographic center of Philadelphia’s original city, was the largest of five squares founder William Penn designated as public areas.)
By the time City Hall was completed, it was covered in soot, had homeless people living in its portals and bats flying in the hallways.
Possibly the only thing that kept City Hall from being demolished in both the 1920s and 1950 was this: it would cost as much to demolish the building as it was to construct it.
Fortunately wiser heads prevailed. And while urban critics like Lewis Mumford savaged the building, calling it “an architectural nightmare,” others took a longer view.
The American Institute of Architects says Philadelphia’s City Hall is “perhaps the greatest single effort of late nineteenth–century American architecture.”
But go see for yourself. Take a tour, view the 250 sculptures and visit the sumptuous rooms.
Then peer down from the observation deck just below William Penn’s statue and enjoy a spectacular view of the city he planned. It just doesn’t get much better than this.
Most Incongruous Image: The huge statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. The 37-foot sculpture by Alexander Milne Calder is thought to be the largest statue atop a building anywhere in the world. Yet the Quakers were plain people who stressed simplicity. What would William Penn think of his own statue? Not much, I would guess. But I still love the building.
Address: City Hall Visitor Center, Room 121, Broad and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107 (close to the 13th Street entrance)
Time to build: Over 30 years
Cost to build: $24.5 million
Claim to fame: Tallest occupied building in U.S. until 1909
Number of bricks: 88 million (equal to 14,700 typical row houses)
Number of sculptures: Over 250, by Alexander Milne Calder
Big numbers: Some of the walls are 22 ft. thick; one granite slab weighs close to 40 tons; 37 tons of pigeon guano was removed in 1993, when the building was pigeon-proofed
Height: 548 ft.
Style: French Second Empire, influenced by the Louvre in Paris
Chief architect: John McArthur Jr.
Tower-only tours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Mon. – Fri. Elevator leaves every 15 minutes. Limit: 4 adults. $6 (adults), $4 (seniors, students, military), free (children under 3). There is no handicap access to the tower.
Interior tours (including Tower): 12:30 p.m., Mon. – Fri. Length 90 min. to 2 hrs. $12 (adults), $8 (seniors, students, military), free (children under 3).
Note: Reservations available in-person or by phone the day you visit, not before.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2014 edition of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.