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City Hall: 1910

City Hall: 1910

Philadelphia circa 1910. "City Hall." Philadelphia's soot-stained City Hall, still the largest municipal building in the United States, was for a time the tallest building in the world, at 548 feet. Its epic scope includes the time it took to complete, with construction beginning in 1871 and dragging on well into the 20th century -- the project's main architect died in 1890; his successor's successor expired in 1910, still on the job nine years after the building had been turned over to the city. So glacial was the pace of construction, according to one history, that a major round of revisions had to be undertaken to account for "the invention of electricity and elevators." 8x10 inch glass negative, Detroit Publishing Co. View full size.


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A common misconception

It's a common misconception that the City Hall tower was covered in soot due to the train station formerly located across the street. In fact, the old photos merely exhibit the different building materials used for the building and the tower. The tower is made of cast iron and appears black. Everything below the clock tower is marble and granite so it appears to be light grey. When City Hall was restored in 1990 the iron was coated so it wouldn't oxidize and today it appears to be light grey.

Took the tour!

I was one of two who showed up for the three-hour City Hall tour last October. We crawled all over and inside the building with a former city planner. What a treat. The inside is eye-popping. Carved, gilded mahogany and marble for as far as the eye can see. In places they used aluminum, only because it was valued more than gold at the time. The City Council chambers are unbelievable!

The formal entry room originally was designed to have 90-foot ceilings, but the weight of the main tower started to crack the marble walls so it was divided into two spectacular rooms with paltry 45-foot ceilings.

At 37 feet high and weighing 36 tons, the statue of William Penn at the top is the largest statue ever placed on top of a building. It 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. Eventually they cut it up into 14 pieces and reassembled it at the top.

This photo looks as if it was taken from the Masonic Hall across the street. That building is another eye-popping marvel with construction starting in 1868 and taking more than 40 years to complete. Take that tour as well. Words can not describe what you will see.

Ahhh, the smells of City Hall

Or, at least, the exterior public corridors. Always used to smell like pee back in the early 90s. It seems to be less pungent now. Such a fabulously ugly building.

Styles mixed

This has got to get the prize for the most architectural styles on one building that I have EVER seen!

The picture is a great shot for a game of "I Spy With My Little Eye"!

Tallest Buildings

By tallest building do you mean tallest occupied structure? Because the Washington Monument is 555 ft tall at was completed in 1884, and the Eiffel Tower is 896 ft and was completed in 1889.

[The Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument aren't buildings. - Dave]

All cleaned up.

I guess there was a time when the building was as dirty as the politicians inside it. Thanks for the lore.

Philly Transformed Into Paris

Just a couple of years ago Philadelphia City Hall was used as a stand-in for the military school in Paris when they were filming Transformers 2. Astute film buffs can also cite other movies where it was featured.

By the way, the William Penn statue is the work of Alexander Milne Calder, whose son and grandson also won fame as artists.

Curse of Billy Penn's hat no more

Not since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. First world championship since the "gentleman's agreement" on building height restriction was broken by One Liberty Center.

Rude Billy Penn

That's actually a scroll he's holding, but easily mistaken.

William Penn forgotten

There was a longstanding tradition in Philadelphia that no building would exceed the height of the statute of William Penn atop city hall. This was broken in the 1980's along with many other traditional values we once believed in. Too bad to my mind.

[Building height is a "traditional value"? - Dave]

Curse of Billy Penn's hat

Said to be the reason why Philly sports teams lose, as nothing in the city was supposed to be taller than Mr. Penn's hat, and today, the City Hall is no longer the tallest structure in city. Here is an interesting close-up of the head and hat prior to being installed atop the City Hall tower.

Soot Removal

The soot was removed some time ago. Philadelphia is now a very clean city and soot-stained buildings are a thing of the past!

Critical appraisal

When it was being built, City Hall was viewed as a textbook example of municipal graft, corruption and inefficiency, as well as being something of an aesthetic white elephant.

The Philadelphia essayist Agnes Repplier in 1898:

Its only claim to distinction should be the marvelous manner in which it combines bulk with sterling insignificance, squalid paltriness and decorations mediocre and painfully grotesque.

Now of course it's regarded as fashionably and fascinatingly ugly-funky-weird. And gets a lot of love just because it's way old.

"Brotherly love"

So they say, but my first real job in this country was as a disc jockey on Philly's WHAT-FM. It was a 24/7 jazz station with all white DJs. Our AM (a studio window away) was all R&B and gospel, and the DJs were all black. The owner wanted that racial split strictly observed. She had two dogs, a black one named "AM" and a white one named "FM."

City Hall had a very bad pigeon problem and they had tried everything to get rid of the birds, from audio signals to steel nets--there were "Don't feed" signs everywhere. Well, one day as I walked through the City Hall courtyard, I saw a very old lady dragging behind her a large burlap sack from which she pulled a fistful of seeds every ten steps, or so. Casting the seeds in the air, she instructed the pigeons to "Go s_it on the Jews."

I had to wonder if Philadelphia's well-known tag had been a counter measure.

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