Friday, October 08, 2010

City Hall

Chose your superlatives and apply them all to the Philadelphia City Hall - biggest, best, most, tallest - they all apply. It is the largest municipal building in the US. It was the first non-religious building to be called the tallest in the world. It is the tallest un-reinforced masonry building in the US and second tallest in the world. It has more statues on it than any other building in the US. At 37-feet tall and weighing 26 tons it has the largest statue ever placed on the top of a building. The bronze statue of William Penn at the top is so big it sat on the ground for more than a year because no one could figure out how to get it up there.

With its groupings of paired columns and mansard roof it is built in the Second Empire style. It took so long to build (started in 1870 and completed in 1901) that by the time it was finished that style was no longer in style. The exterior is granite, marble, and sandstone. The supports under the main tower are blocks of granite 22-feet thick and set close to 50-feet underground to reach bedrock. Nearly 90,000,000 hand made bricks were used in the construction. The interior is equally as impressive. At times they used aluminum instead of gold because at that time aluminum was more valuable.

For more than 8 decades a “gentleman's agreement” kept it the tallest building in Philadelphia. By the 1980s the building had fallen on hard times. Much of the cast iron was orange with rust. When it was built, Philadelphia was the heart of the industrial revolution and all of those factories that fueled the city's progress and fortune covered the building with soot and grime. The city planned to demolish it until they got the bill for demolition. As it turned out, it would cost less to restore it than it would to demolish it. Thank God for fiscal responsibility.

My hotel was only a block away from City Hall and so on day 2 I went over to see about taking a tour. I got there 20 minutes before the tour started and at that point I was the only person who had signed up. Most just sign up for the 15 minute trip up to the observation deck at the top of the tower. I almost backed out. I thought it would be odd to be lead around the building with my own personal tour guide. As I was standing there talking to the guide about getting my money back for my already paid ticket a woman walked up and asked about the tour. For the next 2 and a half hours the 3 of us crawled all over the building. It was spectacular.

Just ignore that building on the left for now.

There are 4 entrances to the building. Each one is a portal which leads to an inner chamber filled with columns and carvings. Each entrance was either for a branch of the government or for a ceremonial entrance. There are four, free standing granite spiral stair cases at each corner of the building.

The carved figure you see is the architect. He obviously thought very highly of himself.

The first stop was the Mayor's reception room. They were getting ready for a press conference so we had very little time in this room. On the walls are portraits of past mayors.

The honorable Mayor Nutter and Congressman Chaka Fattah showed and we had to leave.

The next two rooms were originally supposed to be one tall room with a soaring 95-foot high ceiling. This was the ceremonial entrance for visiting dignitaries and the like. This room was a part of the tower. As the tower got taller though, the weight of it began to crack the walls. They added a floor in the middle to give the tower more structure. They were left with 2 rooms that have paltry 45-foot ceilings. The room with the domed ceiling was the original ceiling.

The statue of George Washington used to sit in front of Independence Hall

Because this is a working city hall many of the grand old rooms have now been cut up in to cube farms. Still, there is no way to hide the old grandeur. When I got back to work I asked that my work area be redecorated with gilded, hand carved mahogany just like in Philadelphia. I was immediately escorted from the building by security. I assume they wanted me out so the work could begin as soon as possible. I'll just hang out at home and wait for the call that the work has been completed.

The City Council Chambers. What can I say. For the first time in my life I wanted to be a politician. It is all white Alabama marble, Mexican onyx, mosaic tile, and carved wood.

This is the finest cast iron I have ever seen in my life. The detail is amazing.

The wooden box at the back is the press box

The ceilings and walls of the upper halls were covered with murals above a marble dado. The murals were painted over. There has been some restoration (go up to the shot of Mayor Nutter walking in to the press conference), and in some places you can see parts of the murals behind chipping paint. Lower halls got majolica tile or pink granite dado and tiled barrel vaulted ceilings. The tiled barrel vaulted ceilings (not shown) are still there, but mostly hidden behind modern drop ceilings.

The view from the top could have been better. It rained only one morning that I was in Philadelphia and that was the morning I went up in the tower. Still a great experience.

That is the Delaware river with Camden, New Jersey in the distance. The PSFS Building, now Loews Hotel, was the first building in the US designed in the International Style. It looks like 1960s, but it was built in 1932. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The observation deck is just below the statue of William Penn


Jayne said...

Oh my gosh, what a gorgeous building!

St. Blogwen said...

W00t! w00t! You made it!

When I saw your post title I was afraid you were having trouble with Eureka City Hall over something at the Petch House. But this is so much better than a relief.

Isn't Philadelphia City Hall a glorious wedding cake? When I first saw it on a night in May of '76 I recognised it as the sort of thing my college Architecture History professor hated, but I loved it anyway. I had no idea they'd thought about taking it down in the '80s. Were they out of their MINDS??

I think it was a sad day for the Philly cityscape when they began to build skyscrapers higher than Billy Penn's hat. Whenever I return to my old neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square I have to keep my eyes at tree level and ignore the built excrescences towering above them.

They used to present summer Shakespeare performances in City Hall courtyard, subway trains running below and all. I wonder if they still do.

So glad you finally got to take your trip. I'm looking forward to the posts I think you're contemplating writing on the other Philly wonders you saw.

Kate H.
The Sow's Ear

Greg said...

No doubt there will be a few more posts about Philadelphia. Today though, I'm installing the stair runner, so I will most likely blog about that next.

That is, if it comes out good.

Robert said...

Such a modest building, no? The statues on it are just amazing. On the side facing what was Wanamakers (Macy's now) from your previous post there's a statue of John Wanamaker, the store founder, looking like he's ready to walk to work.

You luck out, though, coming after most of the exterior restoration is finished. For a long time all of the metal work on the roof edges were orange with rust, looked just awful. Thankfully wise heads prevailed and it has been taken back to it's glory.

You mentioned my favorite part about the building - nothing better than a building that took so long to finish that it was 20 years out of style by the time it was finally done!

the PSFS building (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, hasn't been that in years) is also something else, even though it's so different from City Hall. After it ceased being PSFS after bank merger in 1990, they turned off the sign on the roof since it wasn't PSFS anymore. Everyone pitched a fit that such an iconic part of the skyline was turned off that Mellon Bank, who now owned it, agreed to turn it back on.

Greg said...

The PFSF building is where I stayed. It was a very nice change from the cookie-cutter Hyatt's and Hiltons I normally stay at. The room was a cross between 30s deco and 50s modern.

The gentleman who gave the tour of City Hall was very knowledgeable about the city as a whole, not just City Hall. He is a former city planner. Two stories that I liked were 1) the PSFS sign can't be taken down because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. 2) After the scaffolding on City Hall had been up way too long, local school kids started a penny drive to help finish the restoration. This shamed the city in to coming up with the funds to finish the project.

anj said...

Everytime we come back into the city from a trip, I say Hi to William Penn. My sons roll their eyes, but there is something about him overlooking the city that makes me happy.

slateberry said...

In response to St. Blogwen's comment, part of the reason I chose not to study architecture is that I knew the programs all pooh-poohed this type of building. My thinking: why spend big bucks and precious time going to a program that is designed to train that kind of passion out of me? No thanks! 20 years later, I've got the chutzpah to stand up to it, so I'm thinking of going back for the MArch. Besides, the world needs some architects that are for, not against, this sort of thing.

Greg, it was very bold of you to post the photo of the majolica tile dado. It comes close to showing up your dining room. But the old redwood can take it!