Philadelphia City Hall Graces the City’s Center

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
By James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.
June 28, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021

The Philadelphia City Hall is like a distinguished gentleman, who is noble in his contribution to the city, has integrity in material and structural elements, and who possesses a refined and cultured disposition.

The location of City Hall was originally outlined in the 1682 city plan by William Penn, the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania. It is centrally located at the crossing of two major streets in the city’s center. Construction of the building began in 1871 and was completed in 1901, realizing the plan’s original intention to hold a commanding position in the city.

The architects John McArthur Jr. and Thomas Ustick Walter designed the building in the French Second Empire Style, originating under Napoleon III in mid- to late-19th-century France. The style drew on those preceding it, including French Renaissance and Baroque, and produces a graceful composition that transcends time. It continues to arouse delight and fittingly reflects the cultured and finely adorned Penn.

City Hall is still a fully functioning municipal building with close to 700 rooms, housing three branches of government: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch’s Civil Courts. 

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The building’s form is quadrangular, with a large courtyard and turrets at each corner. The convex-curved Mansard roof, made of slate, with large dormer windows, defines the building in a distinctive French style. (Toniklemm/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Views of City Hall can be seen from any of the four approaching streets, and the tower from even farther away. The building is one of the world’s tallest and largest all-masonry, load-bearing structures without a steel or iron frame. (Beyond My Ken/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The exterior of the building is finely detailed with ornamentation and almost 100 sculptures embodying the heroes and virtues that define America. (Lee Snider Photo Images/Shutterstock)
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Made of brick faced with white marble, limestone, and granite, the City Hall is handsomely proportioned. (Versatile Aure/CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Large arched entryways open at the center of each façade, welcoming visitors and leading inward to the open courtyard. This view looks toward the outer streets. (Songquan Deng/Shutterstock)
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The courtyard is open to the public, giving the people of Philadelphia space for events and daily enjoyment. The courtyard design also serves to open the interior rooms to air and natural light. A large compass marks the center point of Philadelphia and orients one in the city. (Jon Bilous/Shutterstock)
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This portal stairwell is made of limestone walls, with granite for the steps, columns, and base, and limestone for the heavy carved railings. The stairwell provides access to the upper levels while allowing natural light to penetrate deep into the building. (Bestbudbrian/CC BY-SA 3.0)
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One of the staircases in the north and south portals. The grand scale is felt upon looking up at the coffered ceiling, seven stories above the ground. (Antigng/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The most striking feature of the building is the large tower that rises high above the city floor. The body of the tower is restrained in comparison with the rest of the building. This leads the eye to the upper portions of the tower, where the columns, the large clocks, and an elongated dome form the pedestal for the statue of William Penn. (Beyond My Ken/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The enormous yet refined statue of William Penn, measuring 37 feet high, stood in the courtyard before taking its position at the top of the tower. The statue’s size provides perspective on just how grand the building is. The top of Penn’s hat stands at 547 feet 11.25 inches above ground level. (Public Domain)

James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.

James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith
James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.