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