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Philadelphia's Most 'Disreputable and Disrespected Building'

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In the 1970s, Philadelphia's architectural treasure, City Hall, suffered from abuse and neglect. Not only did the portals leading into the courtyard smell of urine, but most of the bathrooms in the building were tagged with graffiti and strewn with trash. At the time, it was not uncommon to find homeless people asleep or changing clothes in one of the bathroom stalls. The shocking state of affairs didn't seem to bother most in city government. Even "law and order" Mayor Frank L, Rizzo seemed oblivious to the problem. It wasn't until the administration of Ed Rendell that a massive City Hall cleanup campaign was launched.

During that time period, City Hall was in such a state of disrepair that architect Louis Kahn called the building "the most disreputable and disrespected building in Philadelphia" (a comment that no doubt referred to the building's shabby condition), while earlier critics in the 1920s insisted that the structure was inherently ugly anyway. These criticisms for the most part were based on that era's anti-Victorian bias; it wasn't until 1983 that people stopped calling for City Hall's demolition (demolition, in fact, was first suggested a mere 20 years after the building's completion in 1901).

Demolishing the largest municipal building in the United States that had more than 700 rooms, 88 million bricks, and a 548-foot tower (the world's tallest masonry structure minus a steel frame), not to mention over 250 pieces of intricate sculptures by Alexander Milne Calder and a 27-ton cast iron statue of William Penn atop its tower, was not an option when one considered where the rubble was to be deposited. Such a venture would also cost a fortune. "Too big to maintain and too expensive to tear down," was a catch phrase during those years.

The 1921 calls for City Hall's demolition occurred because the pristine white High Victorian Picturesque, or French Renaissance building, had begun to turn coal black from nearby trains and buildings. It didn't help that the building was also called "an impediment to traffic." City Hall, which took 30 years to build, was pretty much out of style by the time the finishing touches were applied. That fact alone is amazing. What had started as a bold architectural experiment with world stage potential was overshadowed by the completion of the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Both of these projects stole the limelight from the building that the AIA called "perhaps the greatest single effort of late 19th Century American architecture," and that poet Walt Whitman (observing its construction from his home in Camden) termed "a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight...silent, weird, beautiful."

Construction on City Hall began in 1871 after a year of planning. John McArthur Jr., was selected to design the building. It is said that the Palais des Tuileries and the New Louvre in Paris influenced the design of the building. In 1873, Alexander Milne Calder began the sculpture work; construction on the tower began at this time also. The construction of City Hall had many starts and stops, as funding was a common problem. When McArthur died in 1890, John Ord was appointed the new architect. He resigned three years later over a wage dispute and was replaced by W. Bleddyn Powell.

In 1921, the Philadelphia Police Department recommended lights on the tower to monitor traffic flows.This experiment pleased some when it was initiated several years later, but many on the road could not see the lights. In 1924, a 30-inch, 350-million candle power spotlight from General Electric was put into the north side of the tower, below the clock. The purpose of the floodlight was to catch thieves who might be running on North or South Broad Street.

The building was designed with four separate wings that formed an open courtyard. The large exquisite gold-colored compass on the floor of the courtyard (as common a meeting place as "The Eagle" in Wanamaker's or Macy's) was mysteriously replaced with a far less spectacular looking city compass sometime in the 1980s. The original compass was truly majestic and framed like an enormous gold star. The building is supported not by steel, but by stone and bricks reinforced by the same.

"A restoration of the building's lavish stairway and exteriors, perhaps the nation's largest ever art conservation effort, is slowly transforming its dingy main floors into bright granite and marble," the New York Times reported in 2010.

The Times also reported crumbling marble and "chunks of ironwork and body parts of statues that would occasionally come crashing to the ground."

In the late 1970s I had the opportunity to take an unofficial tour of City Hall basement, something that could not be done today given the emphasis on security. In the 1970s, however, there were no security checks, and if you knew a City Hall employee you could team up and take an impromptu tour. What stuck me then was all the stored furniture, the old desks, planks of wood, old picture frames and other stored old artifacts seemed to go on forever.

Of course, the highpoint in any City Hall tour is a trip to the tower observation deck. When I'd take these tours with my great aunt as a child I'd always marvel at the very small 5-person elevator that took you close to Billy Penn's hat. That elevator still exists today. The observation deck, while hardly as grand at the deck atop the Empire State building, is still something to see. Small and intimate, most people enjoy the fact that a limited number of viewers can fit on the deck at once. Like the very un-modern (and slow) elevator to the tower, part of the overall charm here is the fact that this aged apparatus is the same as it was decades ago, give or take a few tweaks. It's also refreshing and even reassuring to know that everything does not have to be brought up to date.