For many years it was the tallest building in Philadelphia, but City Hall is small in today’s skyline. Yet it remains one of the city’s most architecturally impressive and unique buildings. One of the world’s finest examples of French Second Empire architecture, it is also the largest municipal building in the entire country, spanning over 14.5 acres of space on eight floors.
City Hall is literally at the center of the city. It occupies the intersection of Philadelphia’s two main thoroughfares, Broad Street and Market Street. The Ben Franklin Parkway extends out from City Hall to the Art Museum, offering a myriad of attractions that make an excellent Walking Tour.
City Hall occupies the site of the original Center Square, named as one of the five original city squares planned by William Penn back in 1682. Philadelphia was originally concentrated in Old City along the Delaware River, where the earliest residents settled and local government offices were located nearby in Independence Hall. Penn predicted that the city would expand westward towards the Schuylkill River, and envisioned its geometric center as the perfect locale for city government. While Penn left the city for good in 1701, his plan came to fruition two centuries later, when construction of City Hall was completed for city offices in 1901.
Just as Independence Hall housed the three branches of national government when Philadelphia in the early 19th century, City Hall today houses segments of all three branches of city government. It serves as the home base for the mayor, city council, and civil trial courtrooms.
For many years there was an unofficial but long-respected agreement that no building would be built taller than Penn’s head, but the city’s growth eventually demanded that it grow. In 1987, Liberty One was built, the first of a series of skyscrapers that now tower high above City Hall.
Renowned architects John McArthur Jr. and Thomas U. Walter designed the masterpiece. Construction began in 1871 and took 30 years and over 1,000 people to complete. The design was influenced by the Palais des Tuileries and the New Louvre in Paris. The influence is apparent in the turreted courtyard stair towers, slate mansard roof with dormer windows, and paired columns that create the illusion that the building is three stories high instead of eight.
A solid granite ground floor is 22 feet thick in some areas, making it strong enough to support the heavy brick faced with marble. The 548-foot center tower is the tallest masonry structure in the world supported without a steel frame.
Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder designed more than 250 sculptures on the building’s exterior. The symbolically rich sculptures include representations of seasons, continents, allegorical figures, and the 37-foot-tall, 27-ton William Penn statue at the top.
Visiting City Hall
While the vast majority of the 700 rooms are just standard offices, several of the spaces are spectacular, including City Council Chambers, the Mayor’s Reception Room, Conversation Hall, the Caucus Room, and the Supreme Court Room.
Security measures require that you visit the building as part of a tour, offered weekdays at 12:30 p.m. It covers the highlights of the building that are not in use at the time of the tour, including the tower. The full tour takes about 90 minutes, but a tower tour alone, offered throughout the day, lasts about 15 minutes.
A small elevator takes visitors to an observation deck at the base of the Penn statue for a panoramic view of the city. The view from the top makes the site’s prime location at the center of Penn’s original Philadelphia apparent. Stop into the Visitors Center and Gift shop to sign up for a tour. Tours depart from room 121 of the East Portal. Summer months can be busy, so plan to stop early in the morning to reserve a tour spot for later in the day.
Broad and Market Streets, 215/686-2840, www.philadelphiacityhall.org
Tower tour: Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m-4:15 p.m
Full building tour including tower: Mon.-Fri. at 12:30 p.m
Cost: Full Building tour: $10 adult, $8 seniors and children 3-18
Tower tour only: $5 adult, $4 children 3-18, $3 seniors