When Philadelphia City Hall was built in 1901, it was the tallest building in the world, aside from the Washington Monument or Eiffel Tower, neither of which had any rooms. Philadelphia City Hall has 700 rooms, the most of any municipal building in the world – not just in 1901, but even today! It was also, in 1901, the first non-religious building to hold the title of tallest building in the world, at least since the Pyramids. (Philadelphia City Hall is about 20 meters taller than the largest Pyramid). And atop it sits its most memorable feature, by far – the oxidized-bronze statue of William Penn – which even today is the highest a statue stands atop any building on Earth.
A brief history. For 80-plus years, the statue of William Penn reigned over Philadelphia; no developer would dare build higher. No person, on any roof, could stand taller than William Penn. But then in 1984, after 40 years of post-war, suburbanization-fueled urban disinvestment and population decline, the city permitted construction on the skyscraper One Liberty Place (above, far left), in the name of jobs and tax revenue. Among the skyscraper's harshest critics was legendary Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon. "It absolutely decimates the scale of Center City," Bacon said at the time. "And once it's been done, there's no stopping it."
Today, there are ten buildings in Philadelphia taller than City Hall: 1) the unfinished Comcast Technology Center (2018, estimated completion); 2) the Comcast Center (above, second from right; 2008, completed); 3) One Liberty Place (above, far left; 1987); 4) Two Liberty Place (1990); 5) the BNY Melton Center (above, second from left;1990); 6) Three Logan Square (1991); 7) the FMC Tower (2016); 8) the G. Fred DiBona Jr. Building, or formerly the IBX Tower (1990); 9) One Commerce Square (1992); and 10) Two Commerce Square (1987).
Philadelphia has made an economic resurgence in the last 30 years. Between 2000 and 2010, its population grew for the first time since the 1940s. But development, as the all-too-true city planning cliche-of-the-day goes, is a double-edged sword. Not all is well and good. First, there was the Curse of Billy Penn. Not until 2008, just one year after two heroic construction workers had the brilliant idea to place a miniature William Penn statue on the top of the Comcast Center, did a Philadelphia sports team win a championship post-One Liberty Place. Second, old communities, who stayed in Philadelphia throughout suburbanization – throughout the years of urban neglect and broken-window policing – have been financially forced to leave the forts their families held down for generations, to move outwards, away from William Penn. From South St. to Snyder St.; from 40th St. to 50th. All this economic growth in their backyard that was supposed to trickle down to them? It hasn't. It's devastating. It's the greatest urban planning problem of our time. I don't pretend to know the answer...
Third, William Penn has been dwarfed by faceless, steel monoliths that sometimes light up at night. But to this problem, I can, in good faith, pose an answer. The very least you could do, Philly, is to put William Penn statues on all of them – on all buildings taller than City Hall. The developers will pay for them, certainly on the new buildings to come. With developers lining up, as they already are now, they'll have no leverage, no reason to refuse.