Tuesday, November 5, 2013

City Hall's Long and Continuing History

Before City Hall’s construction began in 1871, the building's history can be traced back to Philadelphia's founding.William Penn original envision in 1682. Here he set-aside five publicly shared squares laid out on a city grid. The centrally located "Center Square" was reserved as a site for public buildings. Penn planned it to be a central plaza of ten acres to be bordered by the principal public buildings, such as the Quaker meetinghouse, the state house, the market house, and the schoolhouse. It took 200 years before the square was used for that purpose. This is because the city’s development initially expanded around the Delaware river front, rather than from river to river like Penn envisioned. The first City Hall was located in what is currently known as Old City, at 2nd and Market streets, then moved to 5th and Chestnut streets when the Independence Hall complex was built. Center Square remained unused countryside, waiting for expansion. 

Planning for Philadelphia's City Hall began before 1870, when a commission was established to oversee the construction of new public buildings. John McArthur, Jr. was decided upon to be the architect with Thomas U. Walter’s assistance. Work began a year later, in 1871, and the building was completed in its entirety thirty years later. During this long construction period many scandals of mismanagement and corruption spread. The press often referred to the building as a "marble elephant" and "the Temple of the Taxpayers". The public’s disposition of the City hall grew hostile. The work continued and City Hall was fully erected in final completion by 1901. However problems did not cease for the new building.  

City Hall's architecture is of the elaborate Victorian style referred to as French Second Empire. This style was unique to Philadelphia at this time. The initial inspiration arose from the Palais des Tuileries and the New Louvre in Paris which influenced the building's design. Because of its elaborate architecture City Hall was highly controversial from its completion. Many proposals to demolish City Hall were made. The most recent of these was considered in the 1950's. Demolition of the building was looked into, but given that the cost would have been twenty-five million dollars, which was equivalent to the amount that was spent to build City Hall, the building was saved. Once demoed, there would not have been enough money left to build a new City Hall, which would have left Philadelphia without. 
City Hall was originally designed to be the world's tallest building, but because of its long construction time, by the time it was finally completed it had already been surpassed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower. It did however remained to be the tallest in in Philadelphia until 1987, when a long-standing "gentlemen's agreement," was broken. This agreement discouraged constructing higher than Penn's hat. The sixty-one-story construction of Liberty Place, was the first of many build above and beyond this agreement

Today, Philadelphia City Hall is the center of Philadelphia's government and politics, and has been the focal point of Philadelphia itself for more than a century. The building takes up an entire city block, containing over 14.5 acres of floor space. With close to 700 rooms, the building houses three branches of government, the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch's Civil Courts. Consequently, City Hall's interior is constantly being worked with. While the hallways and many rooms have been altered with dropped ceilings and new lighting, as well as many rooms having their original walls covered with wood paneling or sheet rock, a number of the building's most important rooms have been preserved or restored. 

The building's walls face each point of the compass and are arranged in a square shape. The large arched entryways open at the center of each facade, leading inward to a large open central public courtyard. The north side is also where the famous tower is located rising 548 feet above the ground, terminating at the top of the hat on William Penn's statue. Just below the statue is the visitors' observation deck, approximately forty stories above the ground. 

The truth is that City Hall currently fails William Penn’s plan to be the cultural, social and commercial heart of Philadelphia. There are many problems that arise outside and within the walls of City Hall. There are many level changes outside the Hall that tend to be confusing and make it impossible for those with disabilities to enter. There is no clear entrance to the transportation center below and offers only vacant and isolated arcades that commuters must walk through to get to the concourse. It is seen as more of a granite labyrinth that temporally house the homeless. Only the protestors from Philadelphia's Occupy Wall Street have made the most of the square which is possibly the most City Hall has ever been used in its 40 years. 

The future of City Hall seems to differ greatly from its current use now. An urban renewal project is in the midst seen to be completed in early 2014. This major makeover is to be done by Philadelphia-based architecture and landscape architecture firms OLIN and KieranTimberlake. They plan to rejuvenate this historic civic space in more ways than one. Construction on the new plaza will feature amenities such as: a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, a large lawn, a fountain, tree groves, space for events and a new gateway to and from the transportation center below. This new and flexible design allows for it as paved surface to accommodate a variety of activities including concerts, special events, public markets, winter ice-skating, and free screenings of live performances at the Kimmel Center, movies and sports on large digital screens.

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