YIMBY Looks Back at the Renovation of Philadelphia City Hall in the 1980s

Philadelphia City Hall from Arthaus. Photo by Thomas KoloskiPhiladelphia City Hall from Arthaus. Photo by Thomas Koloski

Philadelphia’s City Hall has loomed proudly in Center City since it topped out in 1894, but its tower continues to stand only thanks to several renovations. While the municipal floors of the building only rise nine stories high, the clock tower remains the largest freestanding masonry structure in the world to this day. The edifice is topped by a 37-foot-tall statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, which brings the tower to a full height of 548 feet. The structure was designed by John McArthur Jr. and Thomas Ustick Walter, and was completed in 1901. In this feature, Philadelphia YIMBY takes a look back at the direly-needed renovation for the top of the clock tower that took place in the 1980s.

Scaffolding erection on City Hall. Images by The Morning Call

Scaffolding erection on City Hall. Images by The Morning Call

The original power source for City Hall was coal, which coated the top of the clock tower with dark soot. In the 1960s, the top of the tower was cleaned, turning the sooty gray pinnacle back to its original white color. In 1984, the same year Liberty Place was originally proposed, the city decided to have the top portion of the City Hall tower cleaned and renovated, as the steeple structure was becoming structurally compromised as it was utilizing wood framing that was approaching 90 years in age.

Philadelphia City Hall 1987. Photo by Didier Cayrac

Philadelphia City Hall 1987. Photo by Didier Cayrac

In 1985, scaffolding began to surround the portion of the tower nearest to the clock. The scaffolding was completed on July 15, 1986, when the entire curved steeple and statues were covered. In early September, the steel of One Liberty Place passed the Statue of William Penn, and On September 17th, the scaffolding was taken down around the statue for the Bicentennial celebration of the constitution. As the citizens made a demand to “Free William Penn,” the work was not completed until the summer of 1990, when the construction boom was finishing its work. The scaffolding was completely removed by August 1990, and by the next year the city was revived with a new skyline and a clean municipal building.

City Hall free. Image via The Philadelphia Inquirer

City Hall free. Image via The Philadelphia Inquirer

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10 Comments on "YIMBY Looks Back at the Renovation of Philadelphia City Hall in the 1980s"

  1. Frank Phurness | April 19, 2022 at 9:33 am | Reply

    I hate how the colors mismatch between the top and the bottom.

    • Ken Stanley/Philly,PA | April 19, 2022 at 12:50 pm | Reply

      This is a colossal mismatch, to say the least! How about the word MISTAKE instead of the word mismatch. Hate is too weak for a description, it’s downright ugly! The painter should have been fired. Just my humble opinion. The paint is now beginning to peel.

      • Frank Phurness | April 19, 2022 at 6:20 pm | Reply

        Agreed- but this is probably what happens when your typical corrupt and inept Philly bureaucrats are in charge, and give the contract to an overpriced union contractor who simply doesn’t care.

  2. Henry Hudson | April 19, 2022 at 1:56 pm | Reply

    It is my understanding that the paint came in only 7-10 colors and the warranty would be voided if a custom color was selected. Not sure how long the warranty lasted.

    • Frank Phurness | April 19, 2022 at 6:19 pm | Reply

      That doesn’t make sense. What paint that you know of comes in only 7-10 colors? And why not go with a different brand? Paint mismatching/poor aesthetics on literally the tallest building at the time (and a historic building with amazing architecture) is a non-starter.

  3. I don’t believe it is your normal can of paint. I, actually, do know the City Official who told me this (decades ago) and may be able to track him down. Look me up on LinkedIn if you want to pursue.

  4. To those complaining about the mismatched paint color… This was due to the limit in products available at the time. The wanted to use a product that was on the market for bridge painting so it would last and not require scaffolding for many years to come. However, at the time, this was the closest color in available. We have to remember that some things are done before a time where custom colors could just be selected for a single project. We can’t apply what is standard today to the past. Perhaps during the next big renovation they can do a color match.

  5. It was great to see City Hall renovated… But I agree completely with the comments that the color of the tower was not congruent with the rest of the building…
    However the good thing is with age the white of the tower has turned more to grey.

  6. And Mr. Frank …
    Please don’t put down unions…
    They brought us child labor laws… 40 hour work weeks…
    Sick time vacation time…And continue to represent the interests of the workers…
    Nothing is perfect… But we can’t make it difficult for workers who wish to do so to organize… Currently it’s a harsh environment… abetted by the Republican establishment…😎

  7. Unions…the geniuses behind the weekend!

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