Is Independence Hall Tower in Sync with History?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Fourth Floor – Independence Hall Tower – Showing Bell Tower – Clock Room.
Wenzel J. Hess, photographer, May 13, 1929.

All these years, when we thought we were celebrating a shrine to 18th-century independence, we were inadvertently confirming something quite different: the 19th-century obsession with time. And it’s taken a toll on how we understand the past.

After a recent restoration, the giant clock in the bell tower at Independence Hall will tell time again. But it won’t tell us much about the 18th century. Many assume this tower and its clock date back to the tower of the 1750s, and believe that both were present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the 1770s—but they were not. The original tower at Independence Hall had no clock. Time was, literally, pushed off to the side, as seen in the illustrated engraving from 1778. The State House’s original bell tower provided a sound track for life in the 18th-century city, one measured not in terms of hours but by civic events: ascensions of royalty, meetings of legislature, protests portending revolution. One thing the 18th-century tower didn’t tell—and wasn’t intended to do—was time. Back then, the relatively mundane act of telling time was simply not valued enough to give over the most prominent, symbolic steeple in the city.

"A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken 1778," by Charles Willson Peale. (detail) The Library of Congress.

That original tower might have been important, but it was also rotten. By the time of the British surrender, the upper wooden sections had been pulled down for fear of their falling down. And for nearly fifty years, no tower rose above the rooftops at 5th and Chestnut. When William Strickland proposed a design for a “restored” steeple in 1828, his idea only vaguely resembled the lost original. According to historian Charlene Mires, a lawyer with a nearby office complained about Strickland’s initial design: “No man will be able to look at that building with its new steeple and be able to persuade himself that it represents the ancient State House.”

Strickland hadn’t set out to actually re-create the original steeple. At the level where four dignified windows once looked out, Strickland placed four glaring, back-lit faces of a giant clock to look at. In this new, rising commercial/industrial Philadelphia, Strickland’s steeple reminded the citizenry of their freedom, but conflated that message with a something new: Philadelphians, Americans, were falling under the spell of time.  And it was changing their lives.

George G. Foster, a journalist from New York, visited the steeple in the mid-century: “Clink-clank! what have we here! We go through this little door and stand in the center of the Illuminated Clock! … The wheels are as broad as mill-stones and the weights are attached to cables strong enough to fasten a steamboat to the wharf. … The pendulum, of the size of a steamer’s walking-beam, moves slowly to and fro, once in two seconds, clink clank! Morning and noon and night, Summer and Winter, up here alone in its mysterious and silent realm of wheels and springs and machinery, ever sits the brooding Spirit of the Clock.”

By the middle of the 19th century, the Spirit of Independence had begun to join with (and possibly succumb to) this “Spirit of the Clock.” According to Foster, “that which stamps itself most legibly and universally upon the [Philadelphia] character, the manners, the faces, the very costume, of its inhabitants, is the business of buying and selling, turning everything to the best possible account, and seizing hold of everything instantly by the utility handle. … The very clock on the State-House steeple appears to be calculating how much it can make by striking…”

Foster exaggerated, of course. But other Philadelphians were not in their calculations using time in the name of progress. As Philadelphia barreled forward to its destiny as a manufacturing center, time became increasingly monitored and manipulated. The city that proudly counted down its first century of independence in years, hours, and finally minutes, would soon count among its innovators the Quaker engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made efficiency a science. In Taylor’s famous time-motion studies, he broke factory jobs into component parts, used a stopwatch to measure workers’ motions, again and again, to study, then systematically enhance, productivity and profit.

When Strickland designed the tower of Independence Hall in 1828, he had no clue how profoundly the industrial mindset would come to transform the city and the nation. Strickland couldn’t have known that “Taylorization,” as it came to be called, would define the American way of life. He might have been naïve about the significance of a giant, four-faced clock in the steeple atop what was then and is now the nation’s most revered shrine. But we, with the benefit of hindsight and history, have no excuse.

The clock in the tower at Independence Hall is about the 18th century—by proximity only. Will future restorations acknowledge that fact? Time will tell.


Good Luck With Your Thirteens, Philadelphia—Wherever You May Find Them

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos News Stands at the Southeast Corner of 13th and Market Streets. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer,
January 3, 1950.

No dice. Well, not much luck, anyway. We searched high and low for photographs dating to Friday the 13th–any Friday the 13th. It didn’t help that searching for individual days isn’t an option here at So we did it the hard way, consulting a master list of Fridays the 13th going all the way back to 1801 (here’s a link to a.pdf list). We plowed through a couple of thousand images, one by one, making for a quiet winter evening. This yielded all manner of treasures that will come into these discussions later in the year, but slim pickings of what we were hunting for. The only image we could find from Friday the 13th was “Queen Lane Pumping Station-Showing United States Flag.” Not much, but that scene came with a bonus: it dates from 1913.

Could it be that city photographers avoided the streets on Fridays the 13th? After all, from 1890 to 2000 there were more than 150 of them. Could the photographers have completed their week’s assignments by Thursdays the 12th and reserved Fridays the 13th for work in the safety of the negative file room back in City Hall? Maybe…or maybe not. We’d be interested if anyone does run across other images taken on Friday the 13th in this collection—2012 has two more such Fridays in store.

In our search, we did find thirteens-all kinds of them to share. Most noticeable in the archive are depictions of that somewhat perennially down-on-its-luck street we know as 13th. Wenzel Hess’s noir gem, illustrated above, might be considered the epitome on the 13 genre.

And talk about luckless gems, we also fell for this image from 1919 depicting a forlorn “Battery of Thirteen Water Closets” behind 2976 Emerald Street set deep within the Kensington neighborhood.

But we don’t have to visit the outmoded outhouses of Kensington to wallow in our myriad of thirteens. Philadelphia is rife with all manner of them: Here’s 1313 South Broad Street in 1915; 1313 Locust Street in 1916; 1313 Walnut Street in 1925; 1313 Jefferson Street in 1959 and the sidewalk of 1313 Filbert Street in 1960.

But it’s all random, isn’t it? Thirteen is just a harmless number, until you are on the 13th floor of Philadelphia’s 13th tallest structure, the PSFS Building, and then, all of a sudden, it becomes very personal.


Picture of the Year

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12th and Market Streets-Northwest Corner, 1911. offers up in excess of 84,000 photographs, more than what the most hopeless visual addict would care to peruse. Even a decade’s worth is daunting. (From 1900 to 1910 you’ll find 4,287 images online.) But if you parse PhillyHistory more closely and narrow your search down to a single year (there are 333 photographs from 1911) you’ll have something that’s not only reasonable, but rewarding.

One blogger’s opinion: The Best Picture Of The Year is the illustrated photograph of 12th and Market Streets. Are there runners up? Not really. But a number of other images made their way into a list of top choices. Each in its own way gives a feel for Philadelphia a century ago.

We were delighted to come across this classic image of the doorway at 305 Delancey Street. The door as artifact speaks to the city’s perennial interest in the past; the children make it a distinctive moment in the present of 1911.

Halfway across town, near City Hall, we see some aggressive commercial signage on Juniper Street. Around the corner at 1427 Arch Street, E.R. Williams made and sold much needed “Artificial Limbs.” We found both images compelling.

Why would a city photographer record the side-by-side Philadelphia School for Nurses and the Florentine Art Plaster Company? The peaceful pair of buildings at 2217-2219 Chestnut Street would soon be disrupted by the widening of the bridge over the Schuylkill.

Nineteen eleven saw an impressive improvements to the city’s infrastructure. See the tracks and trestle at Pier #6; an impressive bridge superstructure as Passyunk Avenue crossed the Schuylkill; a monster sewer project at Mill Creek (48th Street and Haverford Avenue) and the fresh, new “Northeast Boulevard,” before it acquired the Roosevelt name.

But the image of the intersection at 12th and Market beats all. It displays every form of transportation known to Philadelphians at the time: horses, automobiles, trolley cars and the railroad, by proximity. (There’s a meager slice of the Reading Terminal Head House visible on the right, but anyone and everyone knows the building dominates the intersection like a cliff hovering over a canyon.) It’s a photographic capture of the spirit of busy Market Street, a retake of John Sloan’s 1901 painting at East Entrance, City Hall, Philadelphia which hangs today in The Columbus Museum of Art.

The idea of both images is not about buildings, or transportation, but the liveliness of the street. When Sloan’s friend and mentor Robert Henri saw the partially-finished painting he urged Sloan to: “get the figures below to give as much of that eternal business of life – going in and coming out.”

Yes, that’s it. Our anonymous photographer from 1911 captured that “eternal business of life,” something we’ll always be looking for—no matter what the year.


Silent Night, Weird Night and a Game of Landmark Laser Tag

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Christmas at City Hall, December 7, 2005. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

As far as Walt Whitman was concerned, light did right by Philadelphia City Hall. Encountering the building’s unfinished “magnificent proportions” one evening, Whitman wrote of “a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, façades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings, with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful…” Foreshadowing Andy Warhol’s quip about fleeting fame, Whitman added: “I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.”

We can only guess if Whitman would have been as impressed by the theatrical holiday lighting of City Hall’s portals in 2005. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, architectural historian George Thomas recalled Whitman and critiqued the project as “less silent and more weird.” Reporter Amy Rosenberg wondered: “Is it art deco or Victorian? Did the Mummers have something to do with it?” Could it have been “something out of Disney? … People who come to see it often don’t know what to make of it.”

City photographer Dick Gouldey captured the special effects on both east portal (illustrated) and west portal (seen here) in versions of the four, rotating lighting schemes that challenged traditional expectations. Covering all bases, the City also put up a traditional evergreen and strung it with lights. Gouldey photographed that, too.

Six years have come and gone and we’ve not heard calls for more of this brand of landmark lighting. If anything, the public memory of this $300,000 production mounted by the Center City District is fading to black. Blame a preference for traditionalism; blame the recession—we’ve never seen anything like it since. And that seems to be OK.

Not that we haven’t used theatrical lighting on historical buildings. For decades, city planner Ed Bacon had promoted the idea of developing such a project to create sets for public performances. In the 1990s, that idea morphed into Lights of Liberty which has become part of Philly’s repertoire to help tell the story of 1776.

By contrast, the City Hall portal project seemed to be light for light’s sake. Its designers borrowed from the most advanced theater lighting techniques and digital photography, but other than the technology itself, the finished work shared no story; it offered no narrative.

The public’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the 2005 project begs the question: Can a state-of-the-art “fusion of theatre, artistic programming, theatrical design and lighting,” devoid of narrative also be successful? Or does the public need more than a heady collaboration of international creatives (Artlumiere and Casa Magica) and their “extraordinary new form of expression,” even if they deliver on their promise of visibility “along the entire length of Market Street”? There’s more to success than visibility.

The very same special effects had been used “to create a destination and a sense of place” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, an Apple Computer store in Paris, and other sites around the world. But Philadelphia’s formula for success is more demanding, more complex. Philadelphia already has a sense of place. What folks here want is fireworks and freedom, the spark and the story. Otherwise, the special effects might be impressive, but they’ll amount to little more than an expensive game of landmark laser tag.


The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Schools

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Construction of West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, April 11, 1912.

When school reformers look at Philadelphia’s situation in 2011, they see too many old and inadequate buildings. Half of the Philadelphia School District’s 257 schools were built before World War II. About one in ten is rated “poor” for condition; more than half only “fair.”

One hundred years ago, there weren’t enough buildings to educate Philadelphia’s 182,637 public school students. Crowded conditions would worsen as elementary school age students, which comprised 93% of the total, moved through the system. And Philadelphia’s population would increase by 300,000 between 1910 and 1920, adding new demand.

Educators here watched with envy as other American cities fixed their overcrowded conditions by investing in new schools. Chicago, for instance, had 33% more students but spent 250% more than Philadelphia on construction. In 1909, not one of a dozen other cities examined had schools as overcrowded as Philadelphia’s, where one-third of the students could only attend school part time for lack of classroom space.

School reform had been long in coming. In 1893, advocates finally overcame opposition and passed child labor laws. Two years after that, the State Legislature passed the compulsory school attendance laws. In 1905, lawmakers instituted the Pennsylvania’s Public School Reorganization Act and in 1911 they granted the Philadelphia School Board the power to raise or borrow funds needed to meet the community’s growing needs.

More than any other year, 1911 was special in the history of Philadelphia public education. Educators had the vision, understood the need and now had the power to implement reform and stake out an enhanced significance for schools. There’s “a new conception of the functions of the public school,” declared District President Henry R. Edmunds. “There was a time when the public school was regarded as being simply a place for scholastic instruction. … To-day, a multitude of interests are being cared for by the public school system which no one dreamed of…medical inspection, vocational training, music, physical training, social centers, open air classes, evening lectures to adults, school gardens and summer playgrounds. … There is a growing tendency for the community to regard the school as the center of much of its social life.” Of course, Edmunds added, “these things cannot be done without money, and that ultimately it rests with the people to pay the bill.”

And so, the people of Philadelphia paid for an enlarged and improved public school system. A remarkable period of construction, already underway, continued with a new head of steam. Ground breakings for scores of larger schools in dozens of neighborhoods, including this tract at 48th and Walnut Streets where West Philadelphia High School soon rose, and resulted in much-needed facilities. Never before had Philadelphians seen school construction on this scale. ( offers up more than 3,100 photographs documenting new construction between 1905 and 1915.)

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Construction Kenderton School, 15th and Ontario Streets, November 25th, 1907.

A century later, the space issue had flipped. Last year, the School District closed West Philadelphia High School and today it’s slated to be sold. The call for reform is as sharp as ever. The current number of students in District schools is 152,411 and is expected to decline by another 6,000 before the end of this decade. One-third of our classroom seats are empty. Scores of schools once were thought to be solutions are now the problems.

Recently, the Philadelphia School Board issued recommendations to “reduce the overall capacity of the District…through closure and consolidations… and aggressively dispose of surplus properties.” The first steps, over the next two years, would close nine schools including Sheppard Elementary; E.M. Stanton Elementary; Philadelphia High School For Business (originally built as Helen Fleisher Vocational School); and Levering Elementary. These closures would reduce classroom seats by 14,465, or 20%.

It’s a matter of supply and demand. In the 21st century we are bound to undo a significant amount of what the 20th century left behind. Future recommendations will doubtless result in additional closures. (The 98-year-old Horace Furness School, for instance, not on the current list, is now more than half empty.)

But it’s also a matter of debate and discussion. Closures evoke reaction from every quarter: reformers, bureaucrats, philanthropists, neighborhood activists, teachers, parents, students, and even preservationists, demonstrating that it’s not fast—or easy—to intelligently shrink a city.

[Note: Schedule of School District’s Facilities Master Plan Community Meetings.]


Back to Basics at Logan Square

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Parkway from Bell Telephone Building – 17th and Arch Streets, February 7, 1919.

No matter how welcomed and honored they may be, guests just don’t get to call the shots. It’s a basic law of hospitality. About a century ago, when planners exercised “excellent ruthlessness” sacrificing an entire rowhouse neighborhood and leafy park at Logan Square to welcome the automobile into the city, folks hoped for the best in what would eventually become a difficult, if not doomed relationship.

OK, it’s true: driving the Benjamin Franklin Parkway makes for one heck of an entrance to a city, maybe any city anywhere.  Space collapses with a touch of the gas pedal.  City Hall rises up as the Art Museum fades in the rear-view mirror. Never before or since had a city and a machine found such amicable terms. Philadelphia embraced the automobile, as Ed Bacon used to say, as “an honored guest.”  But where is it written that the city also had to turn over naming rights to the petroleum philistine?

Logan Square has been victimized, again and again, by the automobile. To create a sweeping vista, an axis connecting City Hall and Fairmount, to enable a unique urban driving experience on it, Parkway designer Jacques Gréber expanded the Square westward to 20th Street, doing away with one street, West Logan Square, and demolishing a block of fifty-five houses.  Then, with a landscaper’s sleight-of-hand, Gréber carved out an off-center circle and created on it the illusion of centrality with a giant obelisk.

The obelisk gave way to the eye-catching Swann Memorial Fountain by architect Wilson Eyre and sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder. But not everyone was taken in. As Jane Jacobs put it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the square “has been whittled to a small traffic island” adorned by a “great soaring fountain” that’s mostly “an elegant amenity for those speeding by.”  Pedestrian visitors knew as well, from both reality and name, they were the guests here, on a purpose-built traffic island, maybe the most glorified one in history.

And if a multi-lane traffic circle wasn’t harsh reality enough, in the third quarter of the 20th century, Logan Square’s entire northern side was given over to a sunken expressway.  Long before then, the name change from Logan Square to Logan Circle had driven home the fact that this place no longer existed in the spirit of its 17th-century designers. Logan Circle was now about its capacity to funnel automobiles into the city.

“Is all the asphalt around Logan Circle really necessary?” asks the Project for Public Spaces, which included Logan Circle in its Great Public Places “Hall of Shame.” PPS suggests how to fix the place, and folks have begun to pay attention.  But those changes will cost us.

Why wait?  We can take a first, important step in the journey to recognize and reclaim the authenticity at hand. We have here a great square, albeit one with a circle in it.  The place should be named for what it offers pedestrians, not how it yields to the automobile.   A name change, and the change of mind that will accompany it, will cost nothing.  It’s time, once again, to call a square a square.


The Parkway’s Tipping Point: a Millionaire, a Mayor and a Model

The Parkway Model Looking [North]West, Mayor’s Reception Room, City Hall. May 1911. (

Imagine John Reyburn’s shock when he heard the massive Parkway project was headedliterally – in the wrong direction. Demolition of the first of 1,300 buildings had been underway for two months when Reyburn, Philadelphia’s brand new mayor in April 1907, learned that the swath being cut through the northwest quadrant of Center City was off course.

Reyburn became convinced of the City’s profound mistake days after his inauguration in a meeting with streetcar magnate P.A.B. Widener, who summoned him to the palatial Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park. One of the nation’s richest and most voracious art collectors, Widener had been trying for more than a decade to get Philadelphians interested in his vision for a new art museum. Why should the Parkway, which started out at foot of the monumental City Hall, come to a distinctly unceremonious end in the park when it could terminate with a glorious new museum, set high on Fairmount?

Reyburn agreed with Widener. And he immediately took it upon himself to adjust the Parkway’s course. Correct “the present line of the Parkway, “he wrote in his first annual address, and continue “the removal of buildings on the new line. … I want this improvement to be the magnificent work that it ought to be.” The Parkway “is an opportunity that no other City in the United States can boast.”

But moving the Parkway’s axis would add $2 million to an already complicated and expensive project. How could Reyburn convince City Council, business leaders and the public that they had gotten off on the wrong foot and the fix would be worth the cost?

First there was compromise. The Parkway’s axis would be angled to the south of its former line, but planners would also artificially extend Fairmount itself to the north.

Then there was a rethinking of the far end of the Parkway by the city’s design establishment. Architect Charles L. Borie took the idea of placing the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Fairmount and went even further. He envisioned a grand plaza surrounded by a cluster of institutions for art and art education. As Borie’s partner, Clarence Zantzinger put it, “the opportunity is…unique in any city in the world.” The Parkway had evolved into something more than an ambitious boulevard connecting park and city. Now it was becoming a sophisticated, civic and cultural solution for the new century.

Reyburn continued to build support by appointing a group of bankers and businessmen, who served, along with city officials, on a new “Comprehensive Plans Committee.” Their work was timed to conclude before a national conference on city planning convened in Philadelphia.

In fact, Philadelphia’s commitment to planning had made the city the preferred location for its Third Annual City Planning Conference in May 1911. Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., who headed up the conference the year before, said as much. In terms of city planning, Olmstead told Reyburn, “your city is the farthest advanced in the country.”

Detail of Parkway Model in City Hall, 1911. (Click image for uncropped version.)

Reyburn proudly hosted the 200 professionals who came from all over the United States. But what was he doing to build support among the taxpaying, voting citizens of Philadelphia? Journalist and planning theorist Charles Mulford Robinson, the man who popularized The City Beautiful Movement, happily noted Reyburn’s tactic designed to build public support. The conference, wrote Robinson, “was more than its title suggests or promised.” The mayor used it as an excuse to mount the “first municipal planning exhibition in America.” And the Parkway would be its focus.

For this exhibition, the Department of Public Works presented new drawings of the re-envisioned Parkway and they built a thirty-foot model that resided for a full month in the Mayor’s Reception Room. The public showed up in droves; a reported 20,000 came the first day. They filed past displays lining the corridors of City Hall to see the model, the exhibition’s pièce de résistance.

So what did Philadelphia taxpayers, those who would foot the bill for this largely expanded and hugely expensive project, conclude? The idea of the Parkway, which had first been proposed forty long years before as a way to the park, now looked like something to be proud of, a public avenue that would come to redefine Philadelphia.

For more information: David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989).


Yo, Alice: We still have the one that got away. (It’s around here somewhere.)

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets, 1925.

It’s not every day, or even every decade, that a major museum of American art opens for business. In big cities, it’s a once-or-twice-a-century kind of thing. This week, Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens in Bentonville Arkansas “to celebrate the American spirit.” Even though the place, built on the Wal-Mart fortune, is more than 1,200 miles away from Philadelphia, we can hear the hoopla. And it might have stung our ears, had things turned out a bit differently.

By coincidence, five years ago today was the start of the most recent Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic saga. What might have been the beginning of the end of Philadelphia’s stewardship of a painting long considered “the holy grail of American painting” started with an announcement that Thomas Jefferson University would sell the painting to Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for the record-breaking price of $68 million. “This is the most important sale of a 19th-century American painting ever,” boasted the president of Christie’s Americas, which crafted the deal. Washingtonians considered landing this picture inside the Beltway on Bentonville’s dime as a big win-win.

But Philadelphians saw the situation differently. And the agreement of sale contained a small clause that, as it turned out, became a potent loophole. If locals wanted the painting they had forty-five days to match the price. Raising $1,511,111 a day, day after day for a month and a half? Sounds impossible for these recessionary times, but in the flush holiday shopping season of 2006, 3,400 Philadelphians reached deeply into their pockets and, with significant help of major philanthropy, a humongous bank loan and at least one case of controversial deaccessioning, the Eakins was ours to keep. Alice Walton would just have to make do with less.

So when they cut the ribbon in Arkansas this Veterans Day, Dr. Gross (who Eakins depicted teaching the surgical technique he innovated to save lives and limbs of thousands of Civil War soldiers) will not be in attendance. So where is the painting this Veteran’s Day, this fifth year anniversary of its near departure?

Searching for Dr. Gross, we look to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, and see one page that steers us to “Colket Gallery 151.” But he’s not there.  Another PMA webpage tells us he’s “currently not on view.” Hmmm, really? Not on view? The Academy’s website doesn’t give us a location, either.

But visitors to the museum at Broad and Cherry will find the painting hanging in Frank Furness’ central rotunda, which as it happens, was completed about the same time Eakins was painting his masterpiece.  After sixty eight million dollars and five years, you’d think we’d be more inclined to coordinate, communicate and, especially this week, to celebrate.

Could it be that we’ve begun to slip back into that old, familiar, Philadelphia complacency?  Now that’s a scary thought.


Cracking the Sculptural Code in City Hall Courtyard

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos City Hall Courtyard During Subway Construction, November 16, 1915, N. M. Rolston, Photographer.

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.”


Philadelphia’s Scariest Halloween Is Yet To Come

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Eastern State Penitentiary, passage connecting cellblock 4 and the central hub,
before stabilization, July 22, 2002. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

It used to be Halloween was for kids: all fun and screams. Now it’s into the serious stuff of big business. Halloween’s about the bottom line. And at historic sites, it’s also about another line, the one that used to be a firewall between non-profit organizations and for-profit activity. In recent times, that line has gotten very squiggly.

Many historic sites subscribe to the principle that if it’s October, it’s OK to cross that line. Come November, it’s OK to cross back again—just in time to send out those end-of-the year, tax-deductable gift appeals that stuff your mailbox.

For better and for worse, Philadelphia’s biggest player of the Halloween scare-and-switch fundraising shtick is Eastern State Penitentiary. Not long after 1994, when the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the 1820s landmark for its first season of interpretative tours, the Halloween seed was planted and nourished. Folks at Eastern State didn’t invent October magic, but they certainly reinvented it. Over the last two decades, Eastern State informs us, they’ve become “the nation’s premier haunted attraction, head and shoulders above the hay rides and other haunted houses out there. Our goal is to make you scared. Really scared.”

A couple of years ago, Haunted Attraction Magazine anointed Eastern State among the nation’s top three “must-see haunted houses” (it’s currently number 19.) Each year, the stakes grow greater and the slope gets more slippery.

Eastern State is hardly alone. Television’s Ghost Hunters (on the Syfy channel) launched its fifth season with a story of violence and death at the Betsy Ross House—from 1980. (Ghost Hunters’ current season exploits the 20th century horrors of overcrowded conditions at the closed Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County.) Back in town, the City Tavern gets into the act with tales of a former waiter who died in a bar fight. Fort Mifflin brags of battlefield ghost Elizabeth Pratt, aka “The Screaming Woman.” There’s “The Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour.” Germantown has its “Ghosts of the Great Road.”

As the best in its class, Eastern State gets to charge as much as $30 per ticket, half of which goes to their bottom line. Then there’s a cut of parking sales and the “Fright and a Bite” dinner packages with nearby restaurants. Souvenirs stocked at the “nighttime haunted house store” include “Terror Behind the Walls” tee-shirts, shot glasses and boxer shorts (black only). Visitors can buy plush, miniature versions of “Frank the Gargoyle,” or the latest edition of Haunted Attraction Magazine, “the premier publication of the dark amusement industry.”

In 2009, according to documents filed with the IRS, Eastern State collected nearly $1.4 million from the fundraising event called Halloween. Where does that money go? A fire suppression system, stabilization of cellblocks, a tower cam. It’s no trick. Year after year, the bulk of Eastern State’s budget comes from Halloween treats.

What’s terrifying is that Eastern State has become deeply addicted to this funding scenario. And it summons up another frightening question: What is the site’s responsibility to the thousands of visitors lined up for a not-so-cheap thrill? It seems that during the Halloween fright-fest, Eastern State’s mission goes on hiatus, at least the part of it that claims to explain and interpret a “complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed.” These issues, their mission statement adds, are “of central importance to our nation.” Even in October.