Tours offer new appreciation for City Hall

"Long before they built City Hall this was a place of drunkenness and debauchery," Morris notes, drawing a wisecrack from the back. The visitor center has 24 volunteer guides. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
"Long before they built City Hall this was a place of drunkenness and debauchery," Morris notes, drawing a wisecrack from the back. The visitor center has 24 volunteer guides. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 21, 2014

It is common to rail against City Hall. Less so to want to tear it down.

Philadelphians long harbored that desire. A 1929 plan called for making the municipal seat a traffic circle. A 1950s push to raze what was viewed as a monstrosity ended only because it would cost too much. As late as 1970, architect Louis Kahn labeled City Hall "the most disreputable and disrespected building in Philadelphia."

Yet here we are, still stewards - and now promoting tours - of perhaps the most curious, majestic, ornate, inefficient (by modern standards), and, yes, admired piece of operating municipal architecture in the United States.

Let's have a look.

"An architectural gem," marveled Mike Seiwert, a construction manager from Wichita, Kan., last week, after taking the daily tour offered by the City Hall Visitor Center.

Seiwert was among a group of 22 visitors who spent about two hours Thursday wandering the warrens of what is, besides being home to City Council and the mayor's office, the largest all-masonry load-bearing building in the world, a stunning example of French Second Empire design and a gallery for 250 Alexander Milne Calder sculptures.

The tour was led by Elaine Morris, a retired executive assistant from Blackwood, N.J., whose love for history moved her to volunteer as a guide.

It was also a reminder of what can be missed but for fresh eyes.

Navigating City Hall's somewhat dingy passageways floored with yellowing linoleum tile, a visitor can easily overlook the Ionic columns of polished marble, the head-high wainscots of Honduran mahogany and circassian walnut, and scores of museum-quality portraits and statues.

Morris made sure her charges didn't.

"It is absolutely amazing," gushed Dwight Romanovicz, 65, a resident of Austin, Texas, who has never suffered a tax increase imposed from within the building's walls.

The tours run daily, Monday through Friday, starting at 12:30 p.m. from Room 121 - which is now the visitor center but was a lavatory when City Hall was completed in 1901. (Like many municipal projects, City Hall took longer than anticipated - 30 years from start to finish.)

Global clientele

The visitors center is overseen by Greta Greenberger, who signed on 21 years ago when the tours were no more than an ad-hoc labor of love begun by Marcia Halbert, a public school teacher.

About 35,000 people make the trip to the top of City Hall Tower each year, Greenberger said. Far fewer take the full-blown tour, which is offered once a day to no more than 25 people at a time.

The clientele is global. In one 15-minute stretch last week, Greenberger fielded inquiries from a Swiss family, a grad student from Peru, a mother and daughter from France, and a lone gentleman from India.

The office has 24 volunteer guides, all trained by Greenberger, but who each have their own styles and quirks.

Every group gets the basics: City Hall has 700 rooms; 88 million bricks were used in its construction; the tower base is 22-foot-thick granite; William Penn's statue weighs 27 tons.

Morris, as a guide, seemed drawn to baroque touches and grand personalities.

As she stood in the City Hall Courtyard, she waxed poetic about William Penn, the Quaker who tops City Hall and serves as symbolic father of religious freedom worldwide. City Hall stands on one of five squares Penn laid out in his original plan for the city.

"Long before they built City Hall this was a place of drunkenness and debauchery," she said.

"Still is," came a voice from the rear of the group.

If Morgan heard the quip, she showed no sign, having already begun pointing out the rattlesnake-shaped handles on the wrought-iron doors that led from the courtyard to what once was the city's jail.

'I loved him'

The next stop was the Mayor's Reception Room with its "coffered ceiling painted in gold and ivory and studded with 188 lights," as the guidebook says.

The walls are hung with portraits of past mayors. Morgan pointed out a few of the more recent and offered her take on each - Frank L. Rizzo ("very colorful, very controversial"), W. Wilson Goode ("the first African American mayor"), and Ed Rendell ("I loved him. I'm from New Jersey and I still loved him.")

She noted there was not a single woman among the rogues gallery. "We are still waiting," she said before moving on to Council chambers, with its mosaic tiled floors, columns topped by bronze angels, and ceiling with painted with eagles.

Her small troupe drifted floor by floor through the dim hallways, oblivious to the passing clots of well-tailored attorneys, suited sharpies on cellphones, and more rumpled bureaucrats. Along the way, they stopped to admire the building's gems, hidden and otherwise - among them Conversation Hall and the state Supreme Court's chambers.

The trip ended on the seventh floor at the elevator to the top of the tower. As they waited for their turn to the top, tour members offered a consensus two-thumbs-up assessment of the city's seat.

"Maintaining buildings like this is not easy," Seiwart said. "You've done a great job with what is a priceless masterpiece."

He was echoed by Romanovicz, who added a truism.

"You never really see the place you live until you have a visitor come to town."


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