Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia’s City Hall is widely regarded as one of the most im­pressive in the world. A great marble wedding cake that fills the square at Broad and Market streets. So big in fact that it was the largest public building in the country until the Pentagon was built in the early 1940s. The building is also admired as something of an outdoor art museum, with decorative stone and bronze sculpture everywhere on its facade.

In recent years Philadelphi­ans have recognized the ex­traordinary asset they possess, and an ambitious program has been undertaken to restore both interior and exterior, and to recapture its original nine­teenth century grandeur. Two major projects that have been completed are the restoration of the Mayor’s Reception Room, and the restoration and repair of the statue of William Penn atop the City Hall tower.

But Philadelphians have not always been quite so proud of their City Hall. In­deed, the history of its long construction, from 1871 to 1901, was one of almost endless – and virulent­ – controversy.

The discord began as early as 1854 when Philadelphia and its neighbors in the county consolidated to create a new municipal government. It was a major step forward in admin­istration, but it also created miserable overcrowding at the old City Hall, a modest two­-story structure at Fifth and Chestnut streets, where city government had been meeting since 1791. There were so many new councilmen, in fact, that they were forced next door to Independence Hall where two rooms were fitted up on the second floor.

Everyone recognized that the city needed a new build­ing, but there was no agree­ment on its location, particularly surprising since it was widely recognized that Philadelphia’s founder William Penn wanted a permanent civic center at the center of the plan he had prepared in 1682: at the square at Broad and Market streets, which was still owned by the city and availa­ble for use. The problem was that new traditions had devel­oped at Independence Square, which had come to be re­garded as the city’s civic cen­ter. The business district was also firmly anchored near Independence Square, and few businessmen or lawyers wanted to see City Hall move westward, for reasons of in­convenience and concern about depreciating values of property they might own near Independence Square.

“Why did City Hall have to move?” asked the Public Ledger, one of the newspapers that opposed the idea. The newspaper admitted that population – as well as some business – was moving to the west side, and it noted that the same centrifugal trends were taking place in cities both at home and abroad. “Yet else­where we hear of none of these feverish and fidgety periodical spasms about changing the sites of their public offices,” the Ledger con­tinued. As examples it noted that New York, Boston and London had all built new government buildings in re­cent years, but they were near existing locations.

For opponents of the Broad and Market streets site, such as the Public Ledger, the best place for a new City Hall was on Independence Square on the south side behind Independence Hall. In their view there was plenty of space. Independence Hall would not be touched. Congress Hall, City Hall and the American Philosophical Society’s build­ing were not considered his­toric at the time; in a pinch, it would be permissible to tear them down if a building de­sign needed more room.

Supporters of Penn’s vision not surprisingly opposed the idea. They wanted to realize William Penn’s dream. They also believed it made good sense to put City Hall in the center of Philadelphia since even critics of the site yielded on the question that the city’s population was moving west­ward, as was business.

The bitter battles between the two opposing views raged for decades without any agree­ment, and in 1870 a referen­dum was approved to settle the issue. By then Indepen­dence Square was abandoned as a possible site. (The Com­monwealth was lobbying Con­gress at the time to win the Centennial Fair, and any plans to disrupt Independence Square seemed impolitic.) But nearby Washington Square was approved, and that finally satisfied the Independence Square supporters.

During the referendum campaign, local newspapers engaged in heated editorial battles with arguments for both sites. It is impossible to ascertain what influence, if any, the editorials had on voters since there seemed to have been a one hundred percent correlation between voters’ residence and their choice for a City Hall site. More voters lived closer to Broad and Market streets, and that site won handily, 51,625 to 32,825.

The site debacle was finally settled, but City Hall’s prob­lems were just beginning. A new controversy developed over the commission that was appointed by the Common­wealth to oversee the construc­tion. The appointment of commissions such as this was by no means unusual; in fact, Philadelphia already had many, including the Fairmount Park Commission. Like other commissions, after appoint­ment by the government, the building commission members voted on new members when­ever there were retirements. Critics argued the system was undemocratic.

There was considerable turnover of members espe­cially in the early years. The mayor and council leaders were also required 25 mem­bers, so the commission did have some popularly elected representatives.

The real problem in the eyes of critics however, seemed to be that the commission was committed to building at Broad and Market streets, which irked the Washington Square supporters, who still hoped that the project could be moved. The powerful Republi­can machine was unhappy because the commission, not the machine, controlled the lucrative contracts. Somehow, despite the inauspicious begin­nings, the commission man­aged to initiate the project.

The location of the building on the square was yet another controversy even among the commissioners themselves. Some wanted four buildings, one at each corner, so as not to block the intersection; others wanted one mammoth build­ing in the middle. The latter choice prevailed, in large part because it was cheaper to build one large structure than four smaller edifices.

Architect John McArthur, Jr., (1823-1890) was sensitive to the controversy, and he designed the building in the shape of a hollow square with tunnel-like archways on all sides which permitted pedes­trians to walk through the building to the streets beyond. The courtyard became, in effect, a concourse.

The idea for this concourse was an imaginative response to the critics who did not want City hall blocking the middle of the square, and sufficient room remained on the square for vehicular traffic around the building. The architectural style was not particularly imaginative but at least it was not controversial. French Ren­aissance was the unofficial style for mid-nineteenth cen­tury public buildings; both Boston and Baltimore em­ployed it for their new city halls, as did Providence a decade later. It was a classical style with a plentiful – if not extravagant – use of columns, ornamental sculpture and mansard roofs.

The square covered four acres – more land than the site of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The entire site was to be excavated to a depth of twenty feet, an enor­mous job given the pick-and­-shovel techniques of the time. The work began in August 1871, but not in earnest until the following spring. Con­struction began in stages, starting at the south end of the tract. By July 1874, the founda­tions of the basement and tower were nearly complete, and work was underway on the first floor walls at the south end.

Granite was used for the foundation and the first floor, but the commission selected marble for the balance of the building. Marble was an easier stone to cut and carve – this made it better for a building that had so much decorative work. Marble was also less expensive, and it was shipped in large blocks and finished at the building site, which meant that local stone workers could be employed.

The marble came from quarries in Lee in western Massachusetts, considered the best source of quality marble in the country, which also supplied the marble for the wings of the U.S. Capitol. The stone was shipped from Lee to Long Island Sound and from there by barge via the Dela­ware and Raritan Canal to the yards of marble contractor William Struthers. The con­tractor’s yards were on the Schuylkill River between Chestnut and Locust Streets, where three hundred workers were employed.

Steam cranes lifted the stone from the barges to the docks where it was picked up by traveling hoists on tracks forty feet above the ground, that carried it to the saw mills and from there to various finishing stations around the yard. Some stone was finished completely by machine, in­cluding the blocks for the walls, but other pieces, such as columns and ornamental work, would be done partly by power tools and partly by hand. More than two thou­sand hand tools were dulled daily, which kept several black­smiths and eighteen appren­tices busy sharpening and carrying the tools to and from the forges. When a piece was completed, the traveling hoist retrieved and carried it to a lorry at the eastern edge of the yard where it was hauled on a special rail line to the building site.

As they did throughout the construction, critics of the commission complained about the workmanship and quality of materials. Hearings were held in 1875, but no faults were found and Struthers successfully sued for libel.

In the meantime, City Hall was occupied in stages as sections were completed. The state supreme court justices were the first to take quarters in January 1877, and more arrived as space became availa­ble, with priority given to those departments renting space so the city start under­writing costs.

The staircases located in each corner of the building were unusual architectural features. Carved of Cape Ann granite, the steps on each of the staircases extended out from the stairwell wall and spiraled five stories skyward without any visible support, which led them to be nick­named the “hanging” stair­cases. Despite their fragile appearance, the staircases were in fact quite solid: 1 1/2′ of the 8 1/2′ granite slabs that comprised each step was an­chored inside the wall and the spiral design of the stairwell meant each step rested on the next for added support. In addition, the first three steps were cut from the same piece of stone, and they rested on a solid foundation brought up from the basement. The de­sign was apparently similar to one used by Christopher Wren for a stairway in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. John Wanamaker – whose depart­ment store on East Market Street stood directly across from the south end of the building – was so impressed by the stairways that he provided a free brochure on them for his customers in 1885. Visitors could obtain a pass from the building superintendent to inspect them firsthand “when­ever your personal safety per­mits,” the brochure said, as work was still going on some of the staircases at the tune.

The most building’s dra­matic element was the tower at its north end. More than 500 feet – or nearly forty stories­ – high, it was destined to be the tallest structure in the world, until the French dashed those hopes with the 984-foot high Eiffel tower in the 1880s. Even so, the City Hall tower is still the world’s tallest wall­-supported stone structure.

A copper statue of William Penn went atop the tower, producing yet another contro­versy. When sculptor Alexan­der Milne Calder (1846-1923) began work on the statue in 1886, he planned to have Penn looking plump and elderly, much as he does in Benjamin West’s famous painting, Wil­liam Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. This was the way most people pictured him, Calder said – and he was right. The stout Penn appeared even on the Quaker Oats advertising logo.

On the other hand, art experts claimed that West’s portrait of Penn was not histor­ically accurate. West had com­pleted the painting in 1771, 53 years after the founder’s death. The artist depicted Penn as he looked when he was about 50, but actually Penn was 38 years old and a good deal trimmer when he arrived in America in 1682. Penn’s clothing was also not accurate, the experts claimed; seventeenth century aristocrats did not dress in such plain garb.

All of this was duly noted in a report that the commis­sion had prepared for it by the Historical Society of Pennsyl­vania in 1875. At the time it was hoping to have a statue ready for the Centennial Exhi­bition, but the project never got underway. Much to Calder’s disappointment, the commission decided that the statue should reflect the re­port’s views. The controversy continued even after the statue was placed atop the tower in November 1894. Penn’s face turned out to be in shadow most of the day, and Calder was most unhappy. Penn should be facing southward, he argued, as he had been for the two years he stood in the City Hall courtyard, citing that this was the best way to re­duce shadows on the face.

The commissioners mounted William Penn looking toward the northeast because architect John McArthur’s drawing showed a figure atop the tower facing toward Ken­sington where tradition places Penn signing a treaty with the Indians. According to Calder, McArthur had agreed with him when he was making the model in the late 1880s. Unfor­tunately, McArthur died in 1890, and there was no word on this issue in his papers or other correspondence. The commissioners realized that they had a problem with the placement, but metal sheath­ing was about to be placed on the tower beneath the statue. “When the metal covering is on, and the face gets the effect of reflected light, it may look different,” one hopeful suggested.

The commission decided not to shift the statue, in large part because members thought they erected it the way McAr­thur wanted. It was an understandable decision, but it made the commission an easy target for critics. Noting that William Penn’s face would be visible only at sunrise, the Press editorialized, “The presi­dent of the commission Sa­muel Perkins may get up at sunrise, and when we remem­ber the millions spent on the great pile at Broad and Market, we are inclined to think that he does get up at least as early as this.”

In June 1901, the building was officially completed when Perkins handed over the keys of the building to Samuel Ashbridge, Philadelphia’s mayor. There was no formal ceremony to mark the comple­tion of the work, in part be­cause the building had been in use since 1877 but mostly because of the ill will toward the commission.

The final costs of the build­ing were around twenty mil­lion dollars – more than double the estimates of the 1870s. Critics were forever suggesting corruption, but they never found any proof to support their claims; rather, the lengthy construction stages, alterations and additions to the plans were the real culprits as the final costs rose.

The major problem was the fiscal policy of the period, during which the commission had to depend solely on reve­nues from annual taxes. By law, the commission could have raised its own taxes, but decided to let the city councils do the levying. It was a diplo­matic move, but not necessar­ily wise because there was annual bickering and invari­ably the commission received far less than it requested. In­adequate funding slowed the construction, and inflationary trends helped to accelerate the final costs.

An editorial in the North American offered a balanced assessment of the cost issue. The building commission had spent “great sums of money,” it said, “but the city has some­thing to show for the expendi­ture which has been made. It can boast of possessing the finest and best constructed municipal building in the country, or, it is not too much to say, in the world, and if the people are inclined to regret the money it has cost, their criticism must in fairness go back to the adoption of the ambitious plans upon which the City Hall has been con­structed. They may reasonably say if such be their opinion, that it was a mistake for Phila­delphia to engage in such a vast and costly project, but they cannot consistently blame the Commission because an enterprise officially executed has been felt as a burden by the taxpayers.”

Accuracy of the editorial notwithstanding, it was easier for Philadelphians to blame the commission rather than themselves. And so the leg­ends of corruption flourished, with even the Philadelphia­-based Ladies Home Journal doing its share in 1907 by asserting that the City Hall tower grew in height because “everytime somebody wanted to steal a million, he got au­thority to add another story to the tower.” This was a Journal joke, but no doubt credulous readers, even in Philadelphia, took the claim quite seriously.


For Further Reading

America’s City Halls. Washing­ton, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1984.

Burt, Nathaniel. Philadelphia Discovered. Philadelphia: Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1964.

Finkel, Kenneth. Philadelphia Then and Now. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988.

Looney, Robert F. Old Philadel­phia in Early Photographs, 1839-1914. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.

Marion, John Francis. Bicenten­nial City. Princeton, N.J.: Pyne Press, 1974.

Webster, Richard. Philadelphia Preserved: A Catalogue of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.


The editor wishes to thank Judith Goldschmidt of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Rich­ard Tyler of the Philadelphia Historical Commission for their generous assistance in identifying and lending illustrations for this article.


Michael P. McCarthy of Merion is a freelance historian. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University and his doctorate from Northwestern University. A specialist in urban history, he is the author of a book and several major articles on Philadelphia. His most recent work, “Corrupt and Contented? Philadelphia Stereotypes and Suburban Growth on the Main Line,” appears in Suburbia Reex­amined, published in 1989.