Secret Philly

There’s a cool free light show inside the Ritz-Carlton’s historic dome

Grab a bottle from the champagne vending machine and check out the display.

Skylines, including that of Moscow’s, are part of the new light show in the Ritz-Carlton lobby

Skylines, including that of Moscow’s, are part of the new light show in the Ritz-Carlton lobby

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Next time you’re passing by the elegant columns of the Ritz-Carlton on Broad Street, step inside and look up.

Originally constructed a century ago to a Frank Furness design, the impressive rotunda across from City Hall is now home to a nightly display that provides a tranquil, 20-minute escape.

Each evening, 9.2 million pixels dance across the former Girard Trust dome that’s one of Philadelphia’s most iconic architectural structures, projecting more than 80,000 lumens onto the historic marble archway.

Launched after Thanksgiving as a holiday season attraction, the light show proved so popular that Ritz-Carlton decision-makers decided to keep it going indefinitely, per spokesperson Jimmy Contreras. It was launched to dazzle hotel guests, yes, but Contreras said hotel management also saw an opportunity to engage the larger community.

At any given time there’s between 20 and 300 people hanging out in the opulent space, Contreras said, describing the area as “like one big living room.”

Philadelphia’s is the only outpost of the high-end Marriott brand to have a light show like this.

The Ritz-Carlton is planning rotating seasonal displays for the foreseeable future. The current wintry show opens with wreaths and a snowy forest scene before transitioning into projections of global city skylines including Moscow, Paris and, of course, Philadelphia.

It all begins when the clock strikes 5 o’clock and visitors are greeted with the sound of coins clinking and a rolling voice that announces in solemn tones: “The bank is closing.”

Where Philadelphia elite kept their jewels

The Beaux Arts building at the corner of Broad and Chestnut has lived many lives.

It was originally commissioned by Philadelphia philanthropist Stephen Girard. In 1811, he had founded Girard Bank, an Old City-headquartered institution that helped finance the U.S. government’s War of 1812 and established Girard as one of the nation’s preeminent bankers.

After various mergers and acquisitions throughout the 19th century, Girard Bank in 1905 commissioned a new central office just south of City Hall.

Known as the Girard Trust Building, the structure was a joint project by two of the largest architectural firms of the 20th century. These were Furness, Evans & Co. — known for its design of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and many other Philadelphia icons — and Mckim, Mead & White, an NYC firm renowned for the Boston Symphony Hall and the Brooklyn Museum.

What they built together was the elegantly columned structure made from 9,000 tons of imported Georgia marble and modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. By the time construction was complete in 1908, the cost topped $2.5 million (about $70 million in today’s dollars).

The exterior of the marble building is the same as it was 100 years ago

The exterior of the marble building is the same as it was 100 years ago

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The distinct domed top was done in the Gustavino pattern, meaning it’s held together by just tiles and marble, with no steel or iron supports. Much of the stone was sent over from Italy, mined from the famed Carerra quarry.

From the start, the room was designed to be an experience — albeit back then, it was meant for rich folks.

Where a twinkling chandelier now dips down from the dome’s 140-foot zenith into Aqimero, the Ritz-Carlton’s restaurant and bar, the impressive Girard Bank vault once stood.

“That’s where all the who’s who of Philadelphia kept their jewels and their money,” said Contreras, the hotel spokesperson. “When they wanted to wear them or take them out of the bank, there were tellers all around in little houses” who would ring a bell to activate a jewelry-retrieving pulley system.

Today, anyone can pop in and enjoy the space — retrieving, if they like, a bottle of bubbly from Philly’s only champagne vending machine to sip as they watch the light show looping brilliantly above.

Yes, there's a champagne vending machine

Yes, there's a champagne vending machine

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Trees and snow are projected onto the ceiling

Trees and snow are projected onto the ceiling

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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