Magazine: Cities Series — 29.01.21
An Architectural Treasure In The City Of Brotherly Love
Words CHRISTINE M. ESTEL
I could see the entire city skyline, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the tops of buildings. Cars crawled up the streets like carpenter ants. Passing aircraft and billowy, low-hanging clouds seemed to be within my reach.
In the tiny space between the entry wall near the top of the tower and the guardrail just a mere few feet away on the open-air observation deck, I forced myself to circle all the way around, looking as far into the distance as I could, scanning the panoramic view of our beautiful city. I breathed deeply, hoping to slow my racing heart and, when I remembered, swiped my sweaty palms on the sides of my shorts.
Before that summer day in the early aughts, when I was in high school, I’d never been that high above flat ground unless it was in a plane. But thanks to my uncle Dan who’d been working as a judicial clerk and who’d gotten us tickets into the City Hall observation deck, I (along with my siblings and mother) experienced our city from a new vantage point, which resembled that of William Penn, the city’s founder, his statue perched on the tower at 27 tons above our heads. Until 1987, the tip of Penn’s hat was the highest observation point in the entire city.
Our city is the home of soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, and Tastykakes; the Liberty Bell, a grid system, and intense sports fans. It’s the city I call home, even though my house’s zip code is technically a half hour’s drive outside the city limits. It’s the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, where an architectural gem influenced by the Palais des Tuileries and the New Louvre in Paris — City Hall, a National Historic Landmark — stands at the center of the historic area between the Delaware and Schuylkill (pronounced SKOO-kull if you’re a Philadelphian) Rivers.
When Penn first designed the City of Brotherly Love, he intended that the “Centre Square,” now called Penn Square, would be used for public buildings, but it took over 200 years for the square to be used in that way. Today, City Hall is a central location for the Philadelphia City Council and the Mayor of Philadelphia’s office; it houses the Civil Trial and Orphans’ Court Divisions of the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County; the Register of Wills; and several other offices.
I’d been to Center City countless times throughout my childhood. I’d attended at least one of my uncle Dan’s evening law classes at Temple University and, often, I’d driven through the city with my grandfather, learning about Philadelphia’s attractions and landmarks, street layout and names, and trivial pursuit. I knew Center City was close when I’d see Penn, the tallest statue atop a building in the world (at 37 feet), appear. Then I’d notice something about the building’s exterior I hadn’t noticed before, like the placement of the columns, or the various styles and sizes of the windows, or even the size of the four clocks in the tower. But it wasn’t until the day of the observation deck tour that I truly absorbed the majesty of City Hall.
As my mother, siblings, and I made our way to meet my uncle, we crossed into Penn Square, my mother pushing the double stroller holding my two youngest sisters, while my other little sister and my little brother scurried close by. While standing at the base of the largest municipal building in the United States and one of the largest in the world — right in our city — I felt humbled. I tilted my head back and held my right hand to my forehead, shielding my eyes from the pounding sunlight.
I scanned the façade from left to right and back again and realized how it was impossible to view every inch of a building covering 14.5 acres of floor space across its several wings, staircases, and nearly 700 rooms.
We walked inside to see tall ceilings, granite and sandstone columns, and marble inlay paneling. Ornate was an understatement for the arches and grand staircases, architectural treasures on their own, and lavishly decorated rooms, complete with elaborate lighting and intricate detailing. Each area we visited centered on a theme, like Enlightenment for instance, and featured allegorical statues, like lions, serpents, owls, and more, adorning the entryways and walls.
I spoke very little as we passed through the south side and through the courtyard, the central public area inside the square building. I was too focused on soaking in the incredible sights. Eventually we made it to the north side, which houses the infamous tower, one of tallest all-masonry structures in the world without a steel or iron frame interior (548 feet). From there we rode the elevator to the observation deck.
As we ascended, I awkwardly smiled as I locked eyes with anyone else, hoping my nervousness wouldn’t show. My mind raced, wondering if my stomach would calm down by the time we got to the top, or if my clammy hands would dry as soon as the wind brushed against them. Tiny beads of sweat formed on my top lip as we got closer to the top. The doors opened, and I walked toward the entryway. I stepped out onto the deck, barely any room for error against the chain link fence separating me from the Philadelphia air, and I inhaled.
As Philadelphians, we believe the heart of the city is the people. We’re passionate, have one of the sexiest accents in America, and we have churned out recognizable names in the entertainment industry, like Will Smith and Kevin Hart. However, physically, in the hub of the city — at the heart of downtown Philadelphia — stands a true architectural masterpiece. And getting to be a part of it, even for a moment in time, was truly spectacular.
Christine M. Estel lives and writes in the Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in (mac)ro(mic), Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Minison Project, and elsewhere.
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