Essential Architecture- the North East

Philadelphia City Hall


John McArthur Jr., FAIA


Philadelphia, PA




Second Empire




  a: print, overall, Philadelphia, Plans of New Public Buildings, 1888, pl.1.
  b: view from south, photo 1981, M. Brack.
  d: photo from nearer, c. 1900-10, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.
  f: design for Independence Hall site, [GT src?]
  h: mansard detail, photo G. Thomas.
  j:close view, entry pavilion from below, photo 1977, M. Clausen.
Philadelphia City Hall is the seat of government for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At 167 m (548 ft), including statue, it is the world's tallest masonry building: the weight of the building is borne by granite and brick walls up to 22-ft thick, rather than steel. The principal exterior materials are limestone, granite, and marble.

The building was designed by Scottish architect John McArthur, Jr., in the Second Empire style, and was constructed from 1871 until 1901 for a cost of $24 million. Originally designed to be the world's tallest building, by the time it was completed it had already been surpassed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower. With close to 700 rooms, City Hall remains one of the largest municipal buildings in North America. The building houses three branches of government, the Executive (Mayor's Office), the Legislative (City Council), and the Judicial Branch's Civil Courts (Court of Common Pleas).

The building is topped by an 11.3-m (36 ft, 4 in), 27-ton bronze statue of city founder William Penn, one of 250 sculptures created by Alexander Milne Calder that adorn the building inside and out. The statue is the tallest atop any building in the world. It is said that Calder wished the statue to face south so that its face would be lit by the sun most of the day, all the better to reveal the details that he had included in the work (from Hayes). Local legend has it that residents of the north side of the city paid a bribe to have it face them. A more credible reason (since it actually faces a little northeast) is that the statue faces Penn Treaty Park in the Fishtown section of the city, which commemorates the site where William Penn signed a treaty with the local Native American tribe. Yet another version for why the statue pointed generally north (from Craven) instead of south is that it was the current (1894) architect's way of showing displeasure with the style of the work; that by 1894 it was not in the current, popular Beaux-Arts style; that it was out of date even before it was placed on top of the building. Starting in the 1990's when one of Philadelphia's four major sports teams were close to winning a championship, the statue was decorated with the jersey of that team.

The free outdoor observation deck located directly below the base of the statue offers visitors an expansive view of the city and its surroundings. Penn's statue is hollow, and a narrow access tunnel through it leads to a small (22-inch-diameter) hatch atop the hat.

For many years, City Hall remained the tallest building in Philadelphia, under a "gentlemen's agreement." In 1987, it lost this distinction when One Liberty Place was completed. (The breaking of this agreement is said to be the cause of the so-called Curse of Billy Penn, under the supposed influence of which no major-league Philadelphia sports team has won a championship since 1983.)

City Hall is a National Historic Landmark. In 2006, it was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.[2]