On a recent exploration trip to Philadelphia, I stopped in City Hall to ask about the “Tower Tour” that they offer for $3. The woman at the desk first said there was no opening for another hour, they only take four at a time, but when she understood it was just me, she said there was room in the group just leaving. Perfect!
The bottom line: The tour is so slap-dash it is laughable, but is fascinating to go up into such an iconic tower, familiar from early childhood. It was well worth the price, and even a wait, if it were necessary.
They tell you to arrive 15 minutes before your scheduled time to allow for a security check. There was no check. I was directed to the elevator and told to get off at the seventh floor and follow the signs to the next elevator that went up into the tower. It was good they had signs (and a red stripe on the floor) because the long, diserted walk took me into the bowels of City Hall. The building is such a palace on the outside, but the inside is grim and depressing, empty, pus-yellow hallways reeking of bureaucracy and rivalry.
I arrived at a large, ancient, dismal room (I am running out of adjectives) surrounding the central elevator where my tour mates, a suburban man and his two small sons, were waiting. A sign said to browse the display until the elevator arrived. The “display” was two huge posters, obviously left over from some other event, and perhaps 50 old wooden chairs once otherwise headed to a dumpster. The room, however, had windows on all four sides with good views of the city, once I moved a few chairs out of the way. The windows were the most enormous double-hung windows I had ever seen, each pane about 8 feet high.
I soon heard a man yell, “ELEVATOR,” and we all got on. It was a tiny elevator that was a squeeze for the four of us and the operator. It was very old, operated by a hand lever, not automatically with buttons. I mentioned I had not seen an elevator controlled like that since Gimbel’s closed, but the operator, who seemed to resent our imposition on his time, had no comment.
The ride up was fascinating, no thanks to the sullen operator. The elevator had windows on all sides, and we on the tour pointed out interesting sights to each other. I had thought the tower contained Mayor Nutter’s office, but it is floor after floor of unused, dusty rooms with miscellaneous junk lying around. As we got higher, the rooms got smaller and huge, riveted steel beams more prominent. We could see the backs of the tower clocks. It reminded me of the elevator in the Statue of Liberty. At the top, we exited the elevator and ducked under more beams to emerge onto the observation deck.
The deck is enclosed by windows that seemed designed to open. The operator had disappeared, so I tried to open one, but it was stuck. The view was tremendous, and looking up, we had a view of Billy Penn’s crotch that not many others have seen.
Growing up in East Lansdowne, we could see Billy Penn on a clear day by climbing a tall tree in Eddie Vetter’s yard. The rumor was that you could walk around on the brim of his hat. If you still believe that, I can confirm it is not true.
After 15 minutes, we again heard the call, “ELEVATOR,” and rode back down. As I walked the long walk back to the main elevator, I did meet one, lonely black woman heading out to lunch. She was very pleasant and friendly, and would have made a much better “tour guide,” although only two visitors could fit on the elevator with her.
I thought that with a little effort, the tour could be made into something really nice, but with the budget crisis, it is far more likely that it will be closed completely. Go now while you still can.
As I was back on the City Hall courtyard, I saw an Asian couple with tour stickers looking puzzled. They were grateful as I led them to the main elevator, but I could only think, “Oh my. Welcome to declining America, Faces of the Future.”