Before Penn reached his peak

In November 1894, Philadelphians gathered in Center City to see a gargantuan figure spill into their skyline.

No, it was not the Thanksgiving Day Parade and its bluster of balloonery – inaugurated in 1920 – but instead a bronze behemoth. On Nov. 28 of that year, the 14th and final piece of the nearly four-story-tall statue of William Penn was installed atop City Hall.

Alexander Milne Calder – who with his son designed the 250 sculptures adorning the largest municipal building in the United States – finalized plans for the statue in 1888, working with archivists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to ensure the period accuracy of Penn’s clothing and the Charter of Pennsylvania clasped in his right hand.

The artist’s 37-foot-tall plaster mock-up would collect dust for more than a year, however, for the simple fact that a foundry capable of casting the 53,000-pound Quaker did not yet exist.

This changed with the opening of the Tacony Iron & Metal Works along the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia. The artisans there would spend three years realizing Calder’s design piece by piece.

In 1894, Penn’s cross-sections were schlepped down Broad Street and assembled in City Hall’s courtyard. Enamored crowds gathered at his feet, craning their necks to admire the rich detail stretching from Penn’s fingernails to his decorative cuff links and buttons.


Onlookers in City Hall’s courtyard inspect the William Penn statue in 1893. From the Boies Penrose pictorial Philadelphia collection [V60]

A handful of observers questioned Calder’s choice of dandyish clothing, which some thought conflicted with the founder’s shunning of frilly livery. Several spectators also fancied that Penn’s hat looked more like a Stetson ten-gallon than the broad-brimmed haberdashery favored by 17th-century Quakers.

Regardless of these sartorial quibbles, the statue received far more fanfare and praise than its base, City Hall. Still in the midst of construction, the structure had only recently been described as “the biggest and ugliest building in America.”

After being on display for nearly a year in the courtyard, Penn was again disassembled and hoisted, piece by piece, to his perch 500 feet above the street. For those brave steeplejacks tasked with repairs and scrub-downs, a ladder runs through the center of the statue leading to a 22-inch hatch at the topmost part of the hat.


An aerial photograph on top of the William Penn statue, c. 1937, looking down onto the corner of Penn Square at the intersection of Juniper and Market Streets, and the Philadelphia National Bank. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]

Calder, like many of this city’s most prominent individuals, was born far from it; he was a Scotsman, hailing from Aberdeen. If in this tumultuous postelection period one encounters doubters of the contributions of this country’s newcomers, suggest that they look him up.

Join us on March 23 for Becoming U.S. – Age and Assimilation, the second program in HSP’s latest series, as we explore the many ways age and generational status affect immigration and assimilation experiences.

Is the experience decidedly different if an individual arrives in the U.S. as a child, or if one is a student or a working adult? Do first-generation immigrants – i.e., the parents – think about assimilation differently than second-generation immigrants – i.e., children? Does one generation wish to celebrate the “home” culture more than the other? Register for the free program here.

Becoming U.S. is a series of programs launched by HSP in fall 2016 to encourage sharing across ethnicity, race, and citizenship status. We want to hear and learn from each other about the human endeavor of transition and settlement. Through civic dialogue, we wish to personalize stories often presented in the media in only the broadest of strokes, to foster a mutual respect and renewed appreciation for the histories of all Philadelphians.


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