Philadelphia City Hall Tower - Looking Down From William Penn's Hat

Philadelphia City Hall

The largest stone-masonry building in the world - and you can ride up to the top of William Penn's hat and look out over the city of Philadelphia...

View Philadelphia City Hall / William Penn Statue in a larger map

Just visit Philadelphia City Hall Tower, and ride the elevator to the top of the tower. You'll eventually stand atop the gigantic statue of William Penn - the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania. In fact, you'll be in the brim of his hat- and will thus enjoy the most breathtaking and comprehensive view of Philadelphia possible.

Philadelphia City Hall is the largest stone-masonry building in the world, and took 30 years to complete, during the 19th century. The three-decade-long construction process meant that its Second Empire style was already outdated, before it even opened.

Eventually, we will have a more detailed page on Philadelphia City Hall's remarkable history and architecture. However, for right now, we'll just focus on the view and experience from City Hall Tower.

NEW - Complete Guide to the Philadelphia City Hall Tower Tour

Added, Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We'd like to recommend our new, extremely detailed Guide to Philadelphia City Hall Tower Tour - which explains the step-by-step process for enjoying a visit to the hat of the William Penn Statue, atop Philadelphia City Hall Tower. Since it involves going to two different places in City Hall, a side entrance on the street, two elevators and an escalator, as well as directions to get to all of the above - we'd like to recommend that you take a look at the Guide, if you're planning to visit...

Some Enjoyable Facts and Distinctions of Philadelphia City Hall

During the initial planning of its construction, it was intended to be the tallest building in the world, stone-masonry or otherwise.

*The first "city hall" was a rented space at 2nd and Market Streets.

* A referendum was held in the 1860s, to determine the site for the new City Hall, as William Penn would have wished. The voters selected Penn Square at Broad and Market, originally known as Center Square. At the time of the vote, Penn Square was the home of the city Water Works, now located near the Philadelphia Museum of Art - on the Schuylkill River.

* The immediate impetus for the decision to build a grand city hall, was the consolidation of the City of Philadelphia, with surrounding Philadelphia County, in 1854.

* Although it never held the title of the tallest structure in the world, it did - from its opening in 1901 to 1909 - hold the title of the largest inhabitable building in the world. At the time of City Hall's opening in 1901, only the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, and the Washington Monument, in Washington, DC, were taller than it. But neither of those structures were habitable.

* It is the tallest municipal building of any kind, in North America - and possibly, the world.

* The project's initial architect, the Philadelphian John McArthur, never came close to seeing it completed, as he died in 1890 - twenty years after construction began, and 11 years before it was completed.

* The sculptor Alexander Milne Calder completed - in an astoundingly prolific feat - no fewer than 94 statues and sculptures for the new building. Moreover, they were not created in a haphazard manner, or strewn all over the building. There's an artistic intention behind the arrangements.

* Calder's best-known one is the 37-foot-tall William Penn that rests atop the clock tower; it is constructed entirely of bronze.

* Calder was the first tenant in the building, as he used its basement as a studio for his sculptures.

* It is believed that Calder originally intended for the Penn statue to face south, where the sunlight would best illuminate the painstaking detail on Penn's face.

* However, the statue actually was placed, with Penn's face toward the northeast. It is not clear why Calder's wishes were disregarded, although he was apparently very disappointed, as the northeast direction means that very little of the face is illuminated in sunlight.

* Prior to it being taken up to the clock tower, in the 1890s, the statue was exhibited - all 37 feet of it - in the courtyard, where visitors could see it and have photographs taken of it.

* Immediately beneath the Penn statue, are statues of Native Americans and Swedish pioneers who had preceded William Penn's English and Welsh settlers.

* Each of the four entrances is themed with a different geographical region: Europe, Africa, Asia, and the North American West. Europe has a horse; Africa, a camel; Asia, an elephant; and the West, a buffalo. There are also human figures from each of those regions.

* A visitor to Philadelphia in the early 20th century, would likely have gotten off at the architecturally impressive Broad Street Station (the predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Suburban Station), right nearby City Hall and the equally impressive Masonic Temple - very close by City Hall, on Broad Street. Not to mention John Wanamaker's Department Store, at 13th and Market (now Macy's).

* Two French buildings in the same archtectural style, helped to inspire it - the Galerie de Tuilieries and the Louvre.

* By the time of its completion in 1901, the French Empire style was not only out of date, but loathed! Accordingly, there were calls, ironically, for the building that had taken three decades to finish, to be demolished. (Other Victorian structures eventually faced the wrecking ball. the Broad Street Station lingered deep into the 20th century, but was demolished; Penn Center sits on its site. )

* In human terms - tragically, 19 Philadelphians were killed during the 30-year construction, while dozens were injured.

City Hall's cost ended up being triple its original estimate.

But in equal irony, the sheer expense and incredible workmanship sunk into City Hall, meant that even if the city had wanted to demolish it - it couldn't. The reason: it was too well constructed and sturdy for demolition to be quick, cheap, or easy. And so City Hall survived.

The corner stone, ironically, is not actually on the corner. It has McArthur's name on it...

Traveling to Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall is located at the intersection of Broad (the equivalent of 14th) Street and Market Street. It is the most easily accessible building in the region, via SEPTA - and that makes it the logical choice for travel there.

The Broad Street Subway/Orange Line even has a City Hall station, at which every subway train stops. The Market-Frankford Line/ Blue Line/ "el" has stops at both 13th Street and 15th Street, although we'd recommend the 15th Street station, particularly if you're from out of town or unfamiliar with SEPTA.

SEPTA Regional Rail also has two stops near City Hall. Suburban Station is the recommended one - it is located at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard - colloquially, always referred to by Philadelphians as "JFK", as opposed to "Kennedy"-, three blocks away.

JFK is one street above Market, and you just walk over there. You can also walk there via the Concourse, which means that if it is hot, cold, or raining, you don't even have to go outside (although likewise, this is not recommended, if you're not familiar with the area).

Market East Station, which is located at 11th and Market Streets, also provides an easy walk to Philadelphia City Hall (although you absolutely have to go outside to get there). Just exit the train station and look for the tall City Hall clock tower, three blocks to the west of Market East.

As you walk there, at 13th and Market, you will see Macy's - the former Wanamakers - on your left, and you will pass by a blue-and-gold Pennsylvania historical marker commemorating John Wanamaker's role, in the creation of Mother's Day as a holiday. The sign is on an island - but watch yourself carefully, and cross the street, into the Courtyard in the center of City Hall.

There is a very cool map in the middle of the Courtyard, showing the street grid of the city. You can see that you are standing in the dead center of the original Philadelphia street grid, that Penn laid out in the 17th century- 1682, to be exact.

The City Hall Visitor Center is located just off the Courtyard, in one of the alcoves, the East Portal of City Hall, Room 121. Just go there, to arrange for your visit to City Hall Tower.

We highly recommend a visit to City Hall Tower, particularly if it is your first visit to Philadelphia. It has two major drawbacks, though, if you are pressed for time.

One is the fact that City Hall Tower is only open, during business hours, during the week. Unfortunately, Philadelphia hosts a great many visitors at night, on the weekends, and on holidays, and so, many miss out on the opportunity. But if you're in Philadelphia during the week - and during the day - it's a must-see.

The other is that it's close - but not directly adjacent to - Old City Philadelphia. You have to walk a few blocks, or take SEPTA, the Phlash trolley, or a cab, to get there - and if you're pressed for time, that takes a while.

Hours and Availability

You can visit Philadelphia City Hall Tower, from 9:30 AM to 4:15 PM, Monday through Friday, although as the City Hall web site notes, until noon, the tours are reserved entirely for school groups. So, unless you're with a school group, plan for noon to 4:15 PM. And the tickets are timed.

The Experience

You travel via elevator to the 9th floor of Philadelphia City Hall, where you then furnish your ticket to the desk clerk and wait for the next elevator - the one that will take you all of the way up to the brim of William Penn's hat. Once the clerk puts you on the elevator, you go on a very steep ascent to the viewing area, which is literally in the hat of the statue.

From there, you have a 360-degree view of Philadelphia in all of its magnificence. For much of Philadelphia's modern history, this statue was literally the highest point in the city. (And although it's no longer the highest point in Philadelphia, it remains the highest point from which you can see the entire city easily.)

After its construction, there was an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" in place for almost a century, stipulating that no building in Philadelphia could exceed the brim of William Penn's hat in height.

This restricted Philadelphia's commercial growth and aesthetic skyline, and in the 1980s, the agreement was wisely cast aside as the Liberty Place tower was constructed, the first building in Philadelphia to exceed City Hall in height. (Other buildings have also done so, in the ensuing two decades.)

"Billy Penn's Curse"

Philadelphia City Hall - William Penn

The alleged "Curse of William Penn" was part of the lore of Philadelphia sports. To see the picture in its full, ominous glory, just click directly on the photo.

Philadelphia's four major sports teams had enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Flyers winning two Stanley Cups, the 76ers winning an NBA title, the Phillies winning the World Series, two pennants and five division titles, and the Eagles reaching the Super Bowl.

Liberty Place opened in the mid-'80s, in the aftermath of all of those sporting successes. After a few years, someone noticed that none of the Philadelphia teams had won a championship, since the "gentleman's agreement" had been breached.

As the years went by, and more and more fans could no longer vividly remember the glory days from 1974-1983 (or had not lived through them), talk began to surface that by breaching the agreement, Philadelphia was doomed to never win another title.

Although it was not taken seriously, of course, the number of near-misses by Philadelphia teams were increasing, and the chatter about the curse grew louder with each frustration.

The Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals, on more than one occasion, but did not triumph.

The 1993 Phillies reached the World Series, but did not topple Toronto.

The 2001 76ers reached the NBA Finals for the first time in 18 years, but fell to the Lakers.

And the 2004 Eagles returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, but were stopped by the New England Patriots.

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies Finally Dispel "Billy Penn's Curse"

As a way of breaking the curse, it was decided to place a miniature statue of William Penn atop Liberty Place - and in doing so, restore the founder of Philadelphia to the previous status of highest point in the city, which he had enjoyed for nearly a century prior to the construction of Liberty Place.

As it turned out, a Philadelphia team did win a championship after this corrective step was taken. Although we don't take it seriously, it is part of Philadelphia lore now, that the effective remedy for the Billy Penn Curse, was to once more make Penn the highest point in Philadelphia.

And so, it was not until 2008, when the Phillies gloriously won the World Series over Tampa Bay, that the talk of the "Curse of Billy Penn" was finally put to rest.

The title, the Phillies' first world championship in 28 years, finally confirmed that William Penn was not taking the existence of Liberty Place as an affront to his dignity - and that he actually welcomed another championship for Philadelphia.

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