Up In City Hall Tower

I’m talking about the Philadelphia City Hall Tower with the statue of Billy Penn on top. I took a tour to the observation deck there about 10 years ago, and I am pulling all of this from memory, so beware. If I knew I was going to write it up, I would have taken notes (and more photos).

(The observation deck is the circular structure under Billy Penn’s feet. I understand it was once only a chain-link fence. The four massive clocks facing the four directions are just out of the picture above.)

I showed up unannounced at about 1 PM,  (I was just wandering through the City Hall courtyard when I noticed the line of waiting people), and I expected to come back in an hour or more for the next tour. But I was traveling alone. Two elevators in series would take us to the top. Both are small, and the waiting tour could only take one more person, not two, so the woman taking the tickets waved me along with some urgency. The current tour was ready to go.

At the Top

The tiny size of the elevators limited the number of people on each tour, but so did the observation deck at the top, immediately below Billy Penn’s feet.

The first elevator took us to about the 10th floor to a large assembly room with many windows having a high, unobstructed view and dusty posters telling us what a great city Philadelphia is. The posters seemed to be left over from some other event. We waited in the room for too long until someone led us down the hall to the tiny second elevator that took us to the top.

I had the impression the tours were still a work-in-progress. They seemed to expect us to be satisfied viewing the city from the 10th floor windows. I remember the 10th floor halls were painted dull yellowish-green with very high ceilings, much like an old hospital. None of the doors into the offices were open. City officials do not work in plush surroundings. The inside of City Hall is as plain as the outside is ornate. It felt cold and uninviting.

The second elevator ran within the tower. I had expected the tower to contain the Mayor’s office, or at least the office of someone important, but no. Our cramped and Spartan elevator passed floor after floor of empty rooms containing only forgotten items such as an occasional stepladder, a broom, and piles of abandoned sweepings. City Hall Tower is empty. We could see this because the old-fashioned elevator had clear openings through a metal accordion gate at each floor. Each floor was open and not partitioned into separate rooms. Each floor looked exactly like the one before, except the one with the huge clocks where I recognized their enclosed backs. Finally, the elevator door opened, and we ducked under some heavy, riveted, iron beams to reach daylight under the statue’s feet. The  observation deck was enclosed in glass, which was somewhat disappointing because our grade school rumor was that visitors could walk around the brim of his hat. Of course, that was impossible, but we were gullible, especially if a friend believed it. Eddie Vetter had me believing lots of dreck.

Tapping on the glass window of the observation deck suggested it was of thick Plexiglas, and one panel even had a large “#3” written in marker that hadn’t been washed off. (It was on the inside.) The top of the deck was also of some clear, glass-like material. Emerging under the statue’s feet into the brightness with the city spread out below and reaching to the horizon in all directions, was breath-taking. It rates as one of my three all-time best sights. (The other two are the Ben Franklin Bridge and inside a US Steel mill on a chemical society tour. Forget Niagara Falls.)

The Observation Deck

In grade school we could see Billy Penn’s statue by climbing Eddie Vetter’s back-yard tree, so I must have been able to see his house from the statue. Next time I will bring binoculars. We could also see the statue from the corner of Lansdowne Avenue and Baltimore Pike, and it would unexpectedly appear while in neighborhood back yards in Lansdowne and East Lansdowne. It was not an unusual sight.

In those days, no building was taller than the statue by gentleman’s agreement. (The statue, visible in the distance above the trees, was a common sight.)

We came back down the tower quickly with no flourishes or further explanations from the guides, as if they were already late for lunch.

(I understand the tours are a lot more polished now.)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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