Smack dab in the center of Philadelphia is a building with scads of sculpture and one persistent mystery. Philadelphia City Hall is encrusted with no less than 250 marble figures, heads, allegories, principles and attributes by Alexander Milne Calder and his team. It’s been called “the most ambitious sculptural decoration of any public building in the United States.” Yet, historians have always been a bit perplexed. City Hall is without “a coherent plan for the iconography.” All that marble and no meaning. How frustrating.
We’ve long suspected there are hidden clues. The building’s exterior and tower offer a cacophony of sculptural meaning. But when it comes to City Hall’s courtyard there are no figures, nothing to interpret. All we see there are the nearly plain white marble surfaces. In the courtyard, the world’s largest and most complex sculptural program comes to a dead stop.
How could this be? Why did these prolific Philadelphians, architect John McArthur, sculptor Calder and building commissioner Samuel Perkins opt for utter silence in City Hall courtyard? Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions, placing emphasis on the wrong sculptural syllable. Maybe it’s more about what isn’t there at City Hall than what is there.
McArthur, Calder and Perkins didn’t run out of ideas when they came to City Hall’s courtyard. Instead, what they embraced in this heart of the building (the heart of the city!) is the opportunity to express a startlingly modern idea. It’s a sculptural program turned inside out.
We the people complete the sculptural program of City Hall. That’s right. City Hall courtyard is an interactive, do-it-yourself civic sculpture, maybe the only of its kind. By being there, we literally bring City Hall to life. The sculptural program isn’t about sculpture, or historicism, or representations of any kind; it’s about the living, breathing here and now. City Hall comes alive in the same way a Quaker Meeting does; it’s powered by people.
Still not convinced? Stand in the center of the courtyard and look up. There, 510 feet above the sidewalk, more than 300 years in the past, stands the founder himself. We can’t see him beyond the beak of a giant eagle, but we know he’s there; we feel his presence. Look down, there’s the very center of the city he dreamed up. But it’s not Penn’s city anymore, it’s ours. The building is a timeline starting in the 1680s and ending, literally for the moment, anyway, with us in City Hall courtyard.
Standing in the center and searching for more confirmation, we look through the four portals and see the city come together at the spot where we stand, the center of the compass. Then we walk north, beneath the tower. There’s bound to be a hint of meaning there. And so there is: in the chamber criticized in 1876 as a “chamber of horrors” we see the carved heads of dominant animals from the four corners of the earth: bull, bear, tiger and elephant. They focus inward toward four robust, perfectly polished red granite columns. Atop of them are human figures, also from around the world. They are our symbolic stand ins, arms locked and straining, bearing the burden of the tower, the history that is so high above and so long ago.
But these figures are only symbolic. Standing there, witnessing and understanding, we participate in the meaning of the place, we join the continuum of Philadelphia. It’s all, as Walt Whitman once famously put it: “a majestic and lovely show—silent, weird, beautiful.”