In hopes of averting the curse

Atop the Comcast Tower, the city's tallest, a tiny William Penn, with his hat, was replaced after a theft.
Atop the Comcast Tower, the city's tallest, a tiny William Penn, with his hat, was replaced after a theft. (CLARK DeLEON)

Billy Penn's hat is atop the city again. Can a national championship be far behind?

Posted: September 24, 2012

Beneath a clear, blue 9/11 sky - almost too blue, as it was that Tuesday 11 years earlier - I climbed to the top of Philadelphia's tallest office tower in search of an urban legend.

I wanted to see with my own eyes what I had been telling people for years. Not that I ever doubted the story. As we all know, William Penn works in mysterious ways.

The story I tell is familiar to Philadelphians and delightful to visitors hearing it for the first time. For almost 100 years, the tallest man-made object in Philadelphia was the bronze Quaker hat, atop the 37-foot-tall statue of Pennsylvania's founder, that crowns the City Hall Tower.

At 548 feet from street to hat, City Hall Tower was briefly the tallest habitable building in the world, and its status as Philadelphia's tallest building was enforced for decades, not by law, but by an understanding, an unseen handshake among corporate and political leaders who agreed to abide by what was known as the "Billy Penn Hat Rule."

Looking at Center City's vaunted skyline today, where City Hall Tower is a slender, almost insignificant presence, it's hard to believe it once dominated the downtown, with the statue of Penn ruling over the glass and stone building below him like a peaceful bronze Colossus.

All that changed in 1987 with the completion of One Liberty Place, the 61-story, blue-glass Chrysler Building-lookalike crowned with a steel spire that tops off at 945 feet. If the massive bronze shoulders of William Penn weren't already in that position, he would have turned his back on the young upstart and all the other higher-than-thou-hat skyscrapers that popped up during the post-Penn decades.

And sometime during that first decade - no one is exactly sure when, and the man responsible isn't talking - Penn put a curse on Philadelphia and its ungrateful citizens. He wouldn't let any of the city's professional sports teams win a national championship.

He had his reasons beyond being upstaged in the skyline. In 1993, when the Phillies went to the World Series, the city put a big red Phillies hat on top of Penn's bronze hat. The Phillies lost in five games.

In 1997, when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals, they put an orange hockey jersey on Penn. He's a Quaker, for crying out loud! The Flyers were swept in four games.

In 2003, when the Sixers made it to the NBA Finals, nobody did anything to Penn, but he still wouldn't let us beat the Lakers.

Five years later, something Comcast-ic happened to the Center City skyline with the opening of Philadelphia's tallest and greenest skyscraper.

Months earlier, during the topping-off ceremony of the Comcast Center, along with the traditional evergreen tree and American flag, ironworkers placed a small replica statue of William Penn on a steel I-beam and hoisted it to the highest point on the city's tallest building, almost a thousand feet above street level.

And guess who won the World Series that year. Billy Penn was back where he belonged. Top of the world, Ma!

"We know how to take care of our curses in Philadelphia," I like to tell out-of-towners, who invariably ask, "Is it still there?" To which I happily reply, "Of course. Who would dare remove it?"

Only an idiot. Possibly a New York Mets fan. But no properly loyal and reasonably superstitious Philadelphia sports fan would ever mess with Penn again, right? But then I heard that some diabolical nitwit had stolen the statue. Say it ain't so!

"It's true," said John Demming, senior director of corporate communications for Comcast. Demming discovered the theft when he was taking a camera crew to the roof a few years ago to shoot video of the statue. It fell to Demming to find a replacement, which wasn't so easy, but he was successful at last. And, on Sept. 11, he took me to the roof of the Comcast building to see with my own eyes.

It's quite a schlep, incidentally, and it's not a tourist attraction. Guided by Kelly Argo of Liberty Property Trust, which owns and manages the building, Demming and I and three others rode a freight elevator to the 56th floor. Argo unlocked doors that led us to a stairway, up four flights to the unoccupied 57th floor. Then began the 75-foot climb up 10 flights of stairs to the roof.

I've always thought that the Comcast building resembled a shiny glass USB drive for a computer. The part that would plug into the USB port is that indented section, called the crown, at the very top. And on the highest beam on the south side of the rooftop stood a 63/4-inch-tall bronze statue of William Penn, facing northeast, just like the larger Penn statue way, way below.

Never in my life have I seen City Hall look small. From up there, it did. From the new top of the city where little Billy Penn reigns, and will continue to - "Oh, we've got him epoxied down on that beam," said Demming - I could see the cooling towers of the Limerick nuclear power plant 40 miles away and miles beyond that.

From up there on a clear day, Kelly Argo told me, you can see 60 miles. From up there, standing next to William Penn, I could see all the way to another national sports championship.


E-mail Clark DeLeon at deleonc88@aol.com.

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