15 October 07: Inside William Penn's head

Three hundred twenty-five years ago this month, a the son of British Royal Navy Admiral William Penn -- also named William Penn -- arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River two months after departing from Deal, England, about 80 miles east of London. Three hundred twenty-five years later, we still care. What other city in this country has such a close relationship with its founder?

While there is no doubt that William Penn came here to claim the land given to (and named for) his father as payment on a debt owed him by King George II, he was genuinely a man of peaceful ideals, a true Quaker. In setting up this new colony, he drafted the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, in many ways a precursor -- or at least inspiration -- to the US Constitution we know today. Its first article protected personal rights and encouraged religious freedom, the latter of which helped early growth, as the 17th century was a time of great persecution in Europe. As well, Penn was fully cognizant that the Lenapes were here first, and because of his peaceful beliefs, he wanted to develop his colony through trade and business, not by force and warfare. Thus, the famous treaty at Shackamaxon in modern day Fishtown, toward which the statue of Penn atop City Hall faces.

City Hall's location at the crossing of Broad and Market is intentionally symbolic; the crossing of Broad and Market Streets is the center of the original plan for Philadelphia by Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme, who laid out the street grid, the first of its kind in America. Five public squares were, like the 5 on dice, symmetrically kept across the green country towne to "keep the city healthy" and to prevent widespread fires. The four outer squares are still well used and (mostly) beloved as Rittenhouse, Logan, Washington and Franklin Squares. The fifth, Centre Square, was the largest square. By the time of the Civil War, Philadelphia's city government had outgrown its space in the City Hall adjacent to Independence Hall, so in 1870, the city approved the construction of a new civic building on Centre Square. Designed by John MacArthur in the ornate French Second Empire style to be the tallest building in the world, City Hall took thirty years to build, and by that time, architecture's evolution had rendered Second Empire passé, and both the Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument were built and were taller.

Still, City Hall was the tallest habitable building in the world when it opened, and it's still both the largest municipal building in the country and the tallest masonry-supported building in the world. It's also got the tallest statue to adorn the top of any building in the world. That statue of William Penn was of course designed by Alexander Milne Calder, father of Alexander Stirling Calder (designer of Swann Fountain in Logan Circle) and grandfather of Alexander "Sandy" Calder (pioneer of the mobile sculpture). It seems unlikely that Penn would approve of such a monument, as the celebration of man is unquakerly.

But we love him, don't we?

The first cleaning of the Penn statue was undertaken in 1983 in time for the tricentennial of his arrival and when he was still tallest in the city, right before the gentleman's agreement to not build taller than him was broken by Willard Rouse's One Liberty Place. The job was handled by Moorland Studios of Stockton, New Jersey. Moorland's preservation studio carried out the task with such quality and precision that they were brought back in 1996 for the last cleaning, and then again last month. Undertaken by the city Department of Public Property's Public Art Division, in partnership with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, this latest cleaning of William Penn is in many ways the culmination -- the icing on the cake -- of the physical cleaning of City Hall, which has at least been partially covered in scaffolding for at least seven years.

Headed by Constance Bassett and David Cann and carried out by three brothers from Hebron, New Hampshire, Moorland Studios uses a custom wax mixed with a pigment to match the original bronze, applies it with fine paint brushes and then fires it with propane torches. Moorland's portfolio includes a three foot bronze sculpture from Pompeii and partial work on the Statue of Liberty, but Cann says that the Penn sculpture is their biggest single job.

The work is finishing as we speak and the scaffolding, which is mounted in the public observation deck, will be dismantled over the next couple weeks. City Hall's observation deck will reopen immediately after that.

On Monday, I paid a visit to Billy Penn and the Moorland team at work with City Hall tour director Greta Greenberger, city Public Art Director Margot Berg, and WRTI's Susan Lewis, whose report for the program Creatively Speaking will air Saturday morning at 11 on WRTI, 90.1 FM.

There are 72 photos in this set -- of Billy Penn, of the team cleaning him, of the views he regularly enjoys -- which you may launch by clicking


A thousand thank yous to Margot, Moorland, and especially Greta, which you can't spell without "Great"!

For more information, please visit these resources:

Virtual City Hall (by the Dept of Public Property and City Hall tours)
WRTI's Creatively Speaking
Moorland Studios
Tom Gralish's photos of William Penn for the Inquirer

–B Love