Deaths, stunts at City Hall A tower renovation from 1984 to 1991 made jumping from the deck almost impossible.

Posted: October 23, 2005

It's been 18 years since City Hall's tower was the tallest spot in Philadelphia, but the view is still impressive enough to attract 30,000 people annually.

The 360-degree vista from the 484-foot-high observation deck below the iconic Alexander Milne Calder sculpture of William Penn is arguably still the best way the average citizen can see the region. And it's free, open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Monday through Friday.

When construction began in 1871, City Hall was designed to be the tallest structure in the world. By the time it was finished in 1901 - $21.1 million, 88 million bricks, and untold tons of marble, granite and limestone later - the 548 feet to the top of Penn's hat had been surpassed by the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower and the 555-foot Washington Monument.

Still, the French Second Empire-style building continues to hold records - it's the world's tallest bearing-wall structure - and the 37-foot-tall Penn statue is the largest on any building.

Several people have killed themselves jumping from courtroom or office windows on the fourth through the seventh floors, or down the open stone stairwells at the hall's four corners.

But only one person ever committed suicide from the observation platform, a 25-year-old West Philadelphia man who on Feb. 10, 1936, scaled the wire-screen fence that surrounded the deck, hung over the side, and let go. He fell 360 feet before hitting a steel-braced skylight on the ninth floor.

Jumping was made almost impossible during the $24.5 million renovations to the tower from 1984 to 1991, when the fence was replaced with safety-glass windows enclosing the deck.

The windows can be unlocked only with a special key, and ventilation openings above are covered with heavy wire screen or blocked by large, bolted floodlights illuminating the Penn statue above.

Also, the deck is reachable only by a narrow elevator, operated manually by a security guard who takes visitors from the ninth floor.

Mishaps have occurred; in 1927, for instance, a young man apparently became so transfixed by the view that he found himself locked outside.

He wrote "Help me" on a sandwich wrapper, weighted it with a bun, and tossed it over the side, but no one noticed. Pedestrians finally spotted him waving, and he was released.

Perhaps the most unusual stunt was the May 10, 1939, contest in which several Phillies ballplayers tried to catch baseballs tossed from the tower.

An estimated 15,000 people gathered to watch Phillies manager Doc Prothro and catcher Spud Davis do the honors for some teammates below, who wore football helmets to avoid being brained.

The crowd was entertained by several misses that newspapers said bounced four stories high after hitting the ground.

Finally, Dave Coble, a 26-year-old rookie catcher, caught the ball. The force of impact - someone figured the ball was traveling 125 miles an hour when it struck Coble's mitt - buckled his knees, but newspaper accounts say Coble kept his balance and the ball.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|