City Hall (1871-1901)

by Alexander Milne Calder (1846 - 1923)

Photo Caption: Photo Alec Rogers © 2015 for the Association for Public Art
City Hall, Penn Square at Broad and Market Streets

Commissioned by City of Philadelphia

Owned by the City of Philadelphia

At A Glance

  • Take a closer look at City Hall’s central pavilions by clicking on the tabs above (North, East, South, West) or explore the City of Philadelphia’s Virtual City Hall Tour

  • Designed in the ornate Second Empire style used for the Louvre, it was built amid a swirl of political controversy – Critics called it “the tower of folly” and “the marble elephant”

  • Covering four and a half acres of Penn Square, City Hall remains today the tallest masonry-bearing building in the world

  • The exterior and interior contain over 250 works of sculpture, many of which relate to Philadelphia’s government and history, principally attributed to one man, Alexander Milne Calder

  • The central pavilions have a geographic theme: the north bears images of Europe; the east, of Asia; the south, of Africa; and the west, of America

     

City Hall was conceived as the tallest building in the world. (By the time it was completed, however, it had been surpassed by the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument.) Designed in the ornate Second Empire style used for the Louvre, it was built amid a swirl of political controversy. Critics called it “the tower of folly” and “the marble elephant.” Nevertheless, in 1957 a committee of the American Institute of Architects declared City Hall “perhaps the greatest single effort of late nineteenth-century American architecture.”

Covering four and a half acres of Penn Square, City Hall remains today the tallest masonry-bearing building in the world. The domed tower rises over 547 feet above the ground. Most remarkably, the exterior and interior contain over 250 works of sculpture, principally attributed to one man, Alexander Milne Calder.

City Hall facade
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

In the earliest drawings, the building had little or no sculpture; the artistic program seems to have evolved as the work progressed. The external facades of the central pavilions follow the pattern shown in the tabs above (North, East, South, West). The archway entrance in the north central pavilion led to the chambers of the Select and Common Councils; hence, many of the sculptures on that facade relate to Philadelphia’s government and history. William Penn’s face in the keystone recalls the original government; the spandrel figures of a pioneer and an Indian suggest the city’s early history; the figures symbolizing Liberty, Fame, and Victory refer to the achievements of a wise legislature. The east central pavilion, where the entrance served the mayor’s office, follows a similar theme. Since the south central entrance led to the law courts, that facade emphasizes law and its associated functions and virtues. On the west central archway, through which prisoners were brought for trial, the sculpture offers a keystone face of Sympathy and reminds the accused of the value of Repentance, Prayer, and Meditation.

The central pavilions also have a geographic theme: the north bears images of Europe; the east, of Asia; the south, of Africa; and the west, of America. Sculptures within the entryways reinforce the various themes of the facades; for instance, the northern entrance continues its celebration of Philadelphia’s government and history with interior images of Suffrage, Education, Navigation, Commerce, and Poetry.

City Hall tower
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

On the tower, below the dominating figure of William Penn, stand four colossal bronzes, each 24 to 26 feet tall. At the southern corners–facing the area where Swedes had settled before Penn’s arrival–are a Swedish man with his son and a Swedish woman with a child in her arms and a lamb at her feet. At the northern corners stand representatives of the region’s Native Americans, a man with his dog and a woman with her child. Between these sculptures, facing north, south, east, and west, are four giant bronze eagles.

In the crypt below the tower, the column capitals are carved with figures representing the races of humankind, and animal heads on the walls symbolize the continents. Elsewhere in the building are sculptures representing the seasons, the elements, virtues and vices, heroes, arts and sciences, trades and industries. As the city’s Historical Commission declared in 1981, City Hall is “as much a work of art as an architectural and engineering wonder.”

Adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).

RESOURCES

North Central Pavilion (Portal)

Allegorical theme  –  Philadelphia government and history

Continental theme  –  Europe

CITY HALL NORTH PAVILION
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

Main elements top to bottom:


Dormer pediment figures  –  Europeans (Religious male, Spaniard)

Dormer animal head  –  Horse

Dormer caryatids  –  Vikings


Seventh-story coat of arms  –  (City of) Philadelphia


Sixth-story seated figures:

Left  –  Fame

Right  –  Victory


Fifth-story window spandrels:

Left  –  Liberty

Right  –  History


Face in arch keystone  –  William Penn


Spandrels beside arch keystone:

Left  –  Pioneer

Right  –  Native American


 

East Central Pavilion (Portal)

Allegorical theme  –   Philadelphia history and attributes

Continental theme  –  Asia

CITY HALL EAST PAVILION
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

Main elements top to bottom:


Dormer pediment figures  –  Asians (Male Asian, Female Asian)

Dormer animal head  –  Elephant

Dormer caryatids  –  Asians (India)


Seventh-story coat of arms  –  (City of) Philadelphia


Sixth-story seated figures:

Left  –  Industry

Right  –  Peace


Fifth-story window spandrels:

Left  –  Science (Education)

Right  –  Art


Face in arch keystone  –  Benjamin Franklin


Spandrels beside arch keystone:

Left  –  Engineering

Right  –  Mining


 

South Central Pavilion (Portal)

Allegorical theme  –  Justice

Continental theme  –  Africa

CITY HALL SOUTH PAVILION
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

Main elements top to bottom:


Dormer pediment figures  –  Africans (Egyptian, Zulu African)

Dormer animal head  –  Camel

Dormer caryatids  –  Africans


Seventh-story coat of arms  –  (Commonwealth of) Pennsylvania


Sixth-story seated figures:

Left  –  Law

Right  –  Liberty


Fifth-story window spandrels:

Left  –  Executive power (Law)

Right  –  Judicial power (Justice)


Face in arch keystone  –  Moses (Lawgiver)


Spandrels beside arch keystone:

* The images in the south central archway spandrels seem to pertain to agriculture or harvest, but their symbolic significance is unclear


 

West Central Pavilion (Portal)

Allegorical theme  –  Rehabilitation of lawbreakers

Continental theme  –  America

CITY HALL WEST PAVILION
Photo Alec Rogers © 2016 for the Association for Public Art

Main elements top to bottom:


Dormer pediment figures  –  Americans (Male pioneer, Female pioneer)

Dormer animal head  –  Bison (Buffalo)

Dormer caryatids  –  Native Americans


Seventh-story coat of arms  –  (City of) Philadelphia


Sixth-story seated figures:

Left  –  Prayer

Right  –  Meditation


Fifth-story window spandrels:

Left  –  Admonition

Right  –  Repentance


Face in arch keystone  –  Sympathy


Spandrels beside arch keystone:

Left  –  Hope

Right  –  Justice and Mercy


 

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