Friday, October 19, 2012

Amazing masonry: City Hall, Philadelphia

Philadelphia went through a rough time from the mid-1960s through the 1980s (I am not singling out Philadelphia; many American cities were pretty grim during that period). But today, downtown Philadelphia is reasonably clean, interesting, and fun to visit. It shows what can happen when a municipality does not allow urban decay to set in and take over.

The centerpiece of downtown is the monumental Empire-style City Hall, which occupies an entire block in the center of the city. According to Wikipedia, the building and was constructed from 1871 until 1901 at a cost of $24 million. It was designed by Scottish-born architect John McArthur, Jr. in the ornate Second Empire style. With almost 700 rooms, it is the largest municipal building in the United States and possibly one of the largest in the world.

This is a circa. 1899 photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. (online here).

Here is some of the architectural detail and statuary. The latter two photographs I took from my room in the Marriott Courtyard Philadelphia Downtown hotel. It would be hard to find a more convenient location.

The tower is quite an edifice, but unfortunately its impressive size is somewhat diminished by the tall office buildings nearby. The antenna spire is 548 ft up, and Wikipedia claims that from 1901 to 1908, this was the tallest habitable building in the world (the distinction is in contrast to religious buildings like cathedrals and monuments like the Eiffel tower). William Penn is on the top, and he is 11-m tall and faces northeast.

According to the Wikipedia article, in the 1950s, city fathers considered demolishing the city hall, but the cost would have been too high. I do not doubt this story; the 1950s may have been the low period in the American consciousness pertaining to historical preservation. Recall this was the era when the so-called "modern" interstates were slashed across cities, often chopping up historic ethnic neighborhoods. Suburbia and white flight reigned supreme during this period, and inner cities were left to deteriorate and fester. See Building Suburbia, Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 by Dolores Hayden for more details of the suburban flight and its consequences to American cities. Philadelphia's revived downtown shows that many people are finally returning to traditional cities, although the McMansion orgy of the 1990s-mid-2000s demonstrates a recent and gross extreme of the suburban flight trend.
Many other historical building around City Hall have been restored. Good for Philadelphia!
Even the streets have some interesting architectural elements.
This is the view east towards the Delaware River. The S.S. United States is moored at Pier 84 (the red funnels are barely visible in the photograph to the right).
This is the Capogiro Gelato & Sorbetto shop. It has some of the best gelato I have ever savored. Late evenings in summer, it is mobbed with students, businessmen, tourists, and local residents. I spoke to the owner one evening, and he said he toured dairy farms in Lancaster County to look for happy cows (in a similar way, that is why milk and butter is so good in France and Switzerland - the cows are happy).

Photographs taken with a Fujifilm F31fd digital compact camera.


  1. My dear

    I lived in Philly during the 60's, when I returned in mid 80's I was shocked to watch what the city has small city was in recession, many dead amlls all over the states, my neighbours used to go to the malls to eat ice cream and nothing else.

    Now living happily in Rio I was glad to return to a city in which I can use shorts and flip flops (Hawaiannas) all day, near the shore.

    O only hope the Europe recession do not hit USA so hard...

    Best regard, may God bless all my friends in US.