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Philadelphia City Hall

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1871–1901, John McArthur Jr., succeeded by W. Bleddyn Powell; 1984–present restorations, Hyman Myers of the Vitetta Group. Penn Sq.

After the removal of the court and meetinghouse in 1707, Centre Square (now Penn Square) languished for most of the next century until it was made the site of the pump house for the waterworks designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1799–1801; 1827 demolished). Today, thanks to the move of the city hall from Independence Square, William Penn's original plan to base the seat of government in Centre Square is again a reality. From its row house–sized bronze statue of William Penn, by Alexander Milne Calder, at the top of its 547-foot-tall tower, City Hall is heroic in every way. The largest government building in the world of its day, its marble-skinned and columned exterior, crowned by giant mansard roofs in Second Empire manner, represents the optimism and wealth of industrial Philadelphia at the height of its economic boom after the Civil War.

In its abundance of sculptures, it is an encyclopedia of the late-nineteenth-century city, describing the city's psychological worldview in very much the same way that a medieval cathedral expressed the views of its creators. Each facade represents the different races of mankind and their native continents: the east is Asia; the south, Africa; the west, the Americas; and the north, Europe. The pediments of the central dormers in the mansard are supported by caryatids that depict the races of the world—Asian, African, Native American, and European—who are joined by emblematic animals of these continents. In the hall at the base of the great tower, the races and animals reappear, laboring to support the granite columns, an apt representation of the taxpayers who built the pile and who now struggle to pay for its monumentally inefficient government. Because Samuel Perkins, president of the building committee, liked cats, representations appear everywhere on the prowl in the building, especially in the south portal. A bust of architect John McArthur Jr. is in the south stairwell, while an image of City Hall with its 1876 version of the tower, which grew larger in the course of construction, appears on the wall below the north stair of the east portico. Above the great portals, busts describe the internal functions: Michelangelo's Moses signifies the law courts of the south facade; Benjamin Franklin denotes the commercial offices of the city on the east; William Penn symbolizes the administrative offices on the north; and a figure of Sympathy marks the west portal where police vans once brought prisoners to court and took them away. Bronze figures at the base of the cast-iron portion of the tower represent the early residents, Indians and Swedes; the naturalistic ornament represents the local flora and fauna.

The archways provide access to one of the city's finest spaces, the interior courtyard that is more simply detailed in a sixteenth-century French manner. At each corner, spectacular cantilevered granite stairs provide access to tiled corridors with granite floors that have survived the not so benign neglect of a century of service. Around the base an array of bronze statues depicts the cultural, military, and civic leaders of the city: Matthias Baldwin, founder of Baldwin Locomotive Works, east plaza, by Herbert Adams (1905); John Wanamaker, merchant and postmaster general, east plaza, by John Massey Rhind (1923); General George B. McClellan, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army during the first years of the Civil War, north plaza, by Henry Jackson Ellicott (1894), accompanied by a figure of General John F. Reynolds, by John H. Rogers; and John Christian Bullitt, prime mover of the modern city charter of 1883, north plaza, by John J. Boyle (1907). The sole non-Philadelphian is the martyred President William McKinley on the south plaza, by Charles Albert Lopez and Isadore Konti (1908). That these figures should be crowded near City Hall is appropriate for they are the deposits of the great tide of commerce and finance, focused by the city markets, concentrated by the railroads, and now centered around the business of government. Together they describe the history of the city from its founding by idealists to its early mercantile elite and then to its manufacturers and industrialists who made Philadelphia the premier manufacturing center of the world, according to Arthur Shadwell in his Industrial Efficiency (1906). In its vastness, triumphant merging of ancient stone and modern steel, and wealth of sculptures, City Hall is the great memorial to the paleotechnic civilization on the Delaware River.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas
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Citation

George E. Thomas, "Philadelphia City Hall", [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/PA-02-PH49.

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 82-83.

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