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Atop Philadelphia City Hall is a bronze sculpture that stands 36 feet tall. Its 53,000 pounds form a representation of one of the most famous historical figures in Philly. You know, the guy who ends up in all the pretty skyline pictures, allegedly cursed our sports teams for decades, and eventually got a news outlet named after him.
The exterior masonry walls in Penn’s shadow are home to some 250 stone sculptures, depicting symbolic figures, animals and other motifs that don’t get much attention.
You could argue the municipal building’s vast menagerie of stonework languishes in obscurity while Penn hogs the spotlight from his clock tower perch. But every day, whether they take notice or not, thousands of people look upon the hundreds of intricate works.
And they have their own stories to tell.
Taken together, the grandly detailed facades — conceived by famed Philadelphia sculptor Alexander Milne Calder and chief City Hall architect John McArthur, Jr. — weave the tale of Philadelphia and the nation in the late 19th century.
The hundreds of works were a means of “expressing American ideas and developing American genius,” wrote Frederick Faust in an 1897 monograph on the building’s sculpture.
Zoom in closer and you’ll find stories within stories. You’ll see odes to commerce and nautical life — pillars of the then-rapidly industrializing city. You’ll see nods to human attributes (meditation and poetry) and virtues of government (justice and law). You’ll see European settlers and Native Americans, biblical allusions and famous Philadelphians.
Carved into the walls are also little easter eggs. Can you find the mini-depiction of City Hall etched into City Hall? What about the lobster basket? Or the band of cats chasing a mouse, which is said to be something of a friendly joke between the building’s designers? There’s even a compass of four continents that show Philadelphia situated at the center of the earth (still true, obviously).
At the laying of City Hall’s cornerstone in 1874, the Hon. Benjamin Harris Brewster, a former U.S. Attorney General, bragged that the building would “tell the world and posterity how provident we are – how, scorning ugliness as we do vice, we resolve to speak to men as it were in the words of marble… We have done and are doing a great, great work.”
Nan Gutterman, an architect at local firm Vitetta and vocal champion of City Hall, spent a decade documenting the sculptures and bas reliefs on the building as part of a historic preservation contract with the city. To her eye, the level of detail in the sculptures is nothing short of a marvel. Figures high up on the building were given detailed eyeballs, fingernails and toenails no pedestrian would ever notice from the street.
“Nothing was left uncarved,” Gutterman told Billy Penn.
Over the years, critics have noted that the stories aren’t always clear to the casual viewer. “If there was a coherent plan for the iconography that tied the subjects of all the sculptures together, it is not apparent now,” wrote historian George Gurney.
From the first stone laid to the last sculpture placed, it took 30 years to build City Hall — then the largest municipal government building in the world. Made mostly of brick, white marble, and granite, it’s still considered the globe’s largest free-standing masonry building.
From day one, much like the political denizens who inhabit the building, it has been a source of countless grievances.
Over the last century and a half, champions of the building have compared it to the Pyramids and praised its French-inspired classical ornamentation. Others have called it the ugliest structure on the planet. “An inchoate monstrosity,” wrote an uncredited newspaper in 1876. Every few decades, like clockwork, officials entertain the prohibitively expensive idea of tearing it all down to the ground.
A lot would be lost if that ever happened.
Calder’s marble and stone castings, which he modelled in a studio in the basement of the City Hall building itself, represent the equivalent of a lifetime of work for many sculptors. A full account of the hundreds of works would be too exhaustive here, but we’ll break down the major themes, along with other nuggets carved onto the walls.
Each of the four facades carries a continental theme and an architectural theme, as noted by the Association for Public Art.
As you read through this guide, here a glossary of words that are helpful to know:
- Spandrel: that triangular space tucked in the corners on either side of an arched doorway or ceiling
- Caryatid: pronounced like “carry at it,” these are the classical-looking stone carving of human figures that you often see on Greek pillars, plenty of which adorn City Hall
- Dormer: a window that projects out from a sloped roof, also called a mansard roof. You’ll see these along the top of each of City Hall’s facades.
- Keystone: the wedge-shaped stone at the top of an arched doorway; there is one above each of City Hall’s main gates
- At top, William Penn’s bronze casting, of course.
- Bronze figures representing Native Americans and European settlers adorn each of the four corners. They are shown with children, sheep and a coyote.
- The clock itself, which you can read more about here.
- The spandrels above the arched windows on depict two cherubs on each side, eight in total. Each side represents one of the four classical elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water.
- The pavilion dormers: Each of these dormers corresponds to a continent and a representative animal. The Americas to the west (bears), Europe to the north (bull), Africa to the south (elephant) and Asia to the east (tiger). According to this crude compass, historians have noted, Philadelphia would be situated at the center of the world — a not-so-lofty humblebrag for the nation’s founding city in the late 19th century.
Fun fact: On the northwest side of the clock tower, the mother pictured next to the Indigenous child was, according to historian Gurney, modelled from a real life relative of the Calder family.
Allegorical theme: Philadelphia government and history
- Continental theme: Europe, as symbolized by these Colonial looking fellows lounging atop the dormer window.
- Dormer animal: Horse, for Europe
- Dormer caryatids: Vikings
- Coat of arms: This is a sculpture of the Philadelphia City Seal, which features the phrase “Philadelphia Maneto,” a hybrid of Latin and Greek that translates roughly to “Let Philadelphia endure” or “Let brotherly love endure.”
- Seated figure (left): A woman inscribing a seal, representing “fame.”
- Seated figure (right): On the right, a seated soldier representing victory. On this soldier’s helmet is the only place on the building where the sculptor Calder’s signature appears — “A.C.” carved into the helmet, according to Gutterman, who documented each of the sculptures.
- Window spandrels: Liberty (left) and history (right)
- Keystone face above the gateway: William Penn
- Gateway spandrel theme: “Civilization and barbarism,” as it was originally conceived. This is one of the building depictions that does hold up to modern standards, and showcases the racism prevalent at the time. A European pioneer character is supposed to represent “civilization,” and a caricature of a Native American is the “barbarian.”
Easter egg: There is a “nautical” and a “conquest” theme in the design on either corner of the northern facade. If you look closely at the detail, Gutterman says you can see a fishing net with a lobster in it.
Allegorical theme: Justice, as the south side of City Hall was originally designed as the entrance to the city’s courts.
- Continental theme: African figures, including a reference to Egypt on the left.
- Dormer animal: Camel
- Dormer caryatids: More African figures
- Coat of Arms: This is Calder’s version of the Pennsylvania coat of arms, which depicts two horses flanking a bald eagle, festooned with various symbols of the commonwealth’s commercial strengths, like wheat.
- Seated figures, left: An elderly bearded man representing “law” on the left.
- Seated figure, right: A woman representing “liberty.”
- Window spandrels: Left (executive power), right (judicial power)
- Gateway spandrel theme: Despite the overt “justice” theme, the arabesque spandrels here appear to reference agriculture and harvest, though that’s not entirely clear, according to the Association for Public Art.
- Keystone face above the gateway: Moses — as the Old Testament giver of the first laws.
Note: Calder has a studio in the building’s south side basement. He modeled the sculptures in plaster, but according to Gutterman, the stone was carved either in the courtyard or on scaffolds.
Allegorical theme: Philly history
- Continental theme: Asia, with two figures representing China and Japan.
- Dormer animal: Bison
- Dormer caryatids: Native American
- Coat of Arms: The City Seal again, same at the west and north side facades.
- Seated figure, left: A slumped, tired looking figure representing “industry”
- Seated figure, right: A pensive-looking woman in a billowy dress representing “peace.”
- Window spandrels: Left (science), right (art)
- Gateway spandrel theme: Engineering on the left and mining on the right
- Keystone face above the gateway: Benjamin Franklin, the OG Philadelphian
Allegorical theme: Rehabilitation and lawbreakers
- Continental theme: The Americas
- Dormer animal: Bison
- Dormer caryatids: Native Americans
- Coat of Arms: The City Seal again, same as the east and north side facade.
- Seated figure, left: Represents “prayer”
- Seated figure, right: Represents “meditation”
- Window spandrels: Admonition (left) and repentance (right)
- Gateway spandrel theme: Hope (left) and justice and mercy (right)
- Keystone above gateway: The face of “sympathy”
Note: Philadelphia historians note prison vans used to unload incarcerated people to be brought into City Hall from this entrance under the face of “sympathy,” and the acts of “prayer” and “meditation” above.
Into the courtyard
From the eastern gate, on the north side as you walk through to the courtyard, you’ll see a representation of the tower of City Hall, and what is said to be a representation of its architect MacArthur, who passed away before the building was complete. (No living figures were ever carved on City Hall at the time of construction.)
Given the grandiose iconography of the exterior statues, there’s one depiction that sticks out from the rest.
A bunch of cats — a clowder of cats, if you will — chasing a mouse.
You’ll find them through the south side gate, going into the courtyard. The story goes that Samuel C. Perkins, then on the board of Commissioners for the Erection of the Public Buildings, an entity created in 1870 for overseeing City Hall’s development, had a fondness for felines.
Architect MacArthur and Commissioner Perkins grew close over the decades of planning, and in the approval of design for south gate, Perkins included this cat and mouse game — for no other reason than Perkins’ love for the animals, according to Gurney, the historian.
We’re not going to cover all of the interior sculptures here, but be assured Calder’s work extends through each of the ground-level gateways, into the courtyard and inside City Hall itself.
Said Gutterman: “Every time you look at it you might see something different.”