Whitman and Philadelphia City Hall


            By 1873, when Walt Whitman came to Camden, Philadelphia City Hall was already two years into its long, expensive, and controversial construction. The project was approved in 1870, and Penn Square was designated as the building site, to accommodate the westward movement of the Philadelphia population from the Delaware River at the time (City Hall of Philadelphia).

Much of the structure, including the tower, was finished in 1881, but Whitman would die nearly a decade before City Hall was finally completed in 1901, becoming the nation’s largest and most expensive municipal building (Philadelphia City Hall). Its construction cost $24 million and it spans even larger than the U.S. Capitol, featuring enough marble, granite and limestone to cover 18 football fields. It has been called “the greatest single effort of late 19th-century American architecture,” and considered “the best—and most mammoth—example of French Second Empire architecture in America” (City Hall of Philadelphia).

 Although he was unable to see the finished structure, Whitman wrote about his first encounter with City Hall—dated August 26, 1879—in the prose works.

 Returning home, riding down Market street in an open summer car, something detain’d us between Fifteenth and Broad, and I got out to view better the new, three-fifths-built marble edifice, the City Hall, of magnificent proportions—a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, facades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings, with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful—well, I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes (Whitman 873).

 The meaning of this excerpt is elusive when placed in the context of Whitman’s extensive writings on architecture. Charles Metzger explores Whitman’s passion for architecture in his book Thoreau and Whitman, with the thesis that “what Whitman said about architecture supports…the purport he announced in his poetics” (Metzger 82). Whitman objected to the “showy” and “monumental,” and to architecture as a means of displaying wealth, and did so with authority; he was not interested in architecture as a hobbyist, but as a knowledgeable critic who was well-versed and opinioned in the styles of the day (84). His sensitivity to changing styles becomes clear in a critique of the architecture of Broadway, in which he writes,

               …grand edifices have become so much a matter of course that what would ten years ago have caused the greatest admiration and comment, is now altogether passe. (84)

 And in a newspaper article, his objection to extravagant buildings is expressed when he writes that “wicked architecture” is,

                not wicked in carelessness of material construction…nor in purpose…but in the uprighteous spirit of ostentation that unconsciously directs it, and in the manifold and frightful social evils following from it. (85)

 When faced with Whitman’s strong opinions on modern architecture (and their alignment to the democratic ideology expressed in his writing), what could explain the poet’s apparent fandom of City Hall’s architecture in 1879? He had to have been highly critical that it was originally designed to be the world’s tallest building (eclipsed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower before its completion), and one of the world’s largest municipal buildings (with close to 700 rooms). The 37-foot, 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn would be the tallest statue on top of any building in the world—though this addition wasn’t made until 1894 (Philadelphia City Hall). Even before its completion, Whitman aptly describes Philadelphia City Hall as a pinnacle of ostentation and monumental showiness; yet he seems to appreciate what he sees, despite having strongly and publically disapproved of such architectural qualities.

 His knowledgeable writing about architectural design indicates that he was certainly aware of City Hall’s French Second-Empire style, which was popular during the Victorian era and until the 1880s. Fundamental to this style was ornamentation to make the structure appear “imposing, grand and expensive” (Wikipedia). More than being aware of the characteristics of French Second-Empire style, Whitman certainly knew he was not a fan of it.

 Metzger illuminates the connections between Whitman’s aesthetic ideas for poetry and architecture; his valuing of simplicity and essentialism is consistent in both mediums (Metzger 85). His writing on the subject of architecture reveals a concern “with the nature of building materials as the raw stuff of architectural expression, representing likewise the facts of American experience” (85). He fixated with enthusiasm on the “increasing use of iron and glass” in modern architecture, for example (85).

In this context, the excerpt describing Whitman’s encounter with City Hall becomes disorienting; Whitman’s words don’t seem to align with what we know he believed. Perhaps the orienting factor here is that the construction of City Hall was in progress when Whitman encountered it, its beams and raw building materials no doubt still visible—the nature of the structure not yet hidden by ostentation. It makes sense that Whitman would find beauty in the architecture of City Hall in its revealing incompleteness, with its essential structure on display.

The last sentence of the excerpt may indirectly express Whitman’s opinion that a building like City Hall, to him, could only be appreciated with its guts showing. The same sentence may also be an ironic expression of stylistic foresight—an educated knowing that the French Second-Empire style would plummet out of fashion before the original design would reach completion: “well, I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.”

Whatever the meaning of that prose, how Whitman must have responded to the extravagant, race-to-the-sky construction of Philadelphia City Hall is not difficult to conjecture. Considering its record-breaking and bank-busting history, and Whitman’s democratic ideals about all art forms, one could guess that he would have disapproved of the project as a whole, despite being compelled to describe its strange beauty on that moonlit evening.

Works Cited

City Hall of Philadelphia. Essortment.com. <http://www.essortment.com/all/cityhallphilad_rnpn.htm>

Metzger, Charles R. Thoreau and Whitman: A Study of Their Esthetics. Seattle 1961. Accessed 8-10-09 <Full Text>

Philadelphia City Hall. Accessed 8-10-09. <http://philadelphiacityhallwillpennshomepage.org/>

Wikipedia.org. Second Empire Architectural Style. Accessed 8-10-09. <Second Empire>

3 Responses to “Adam L’s Material Culture Museum Exhibit”

  1. jessicaa said:

    I had no idea how long this project took or how expensive it was. Its pretty neat that its called “the greatest single effort of late 19th-century American architecture”. It really makes me want to go and explore City Hall and try to see it how it would have been viewed during the time of construction. I have a new respect and appreciation for City Hall!

  2. pieruccm said:

    This is an excellent shot of City Hall. Growing up right outside of the city, I have always felt such a deep connection with Philadelphia. I was taken into center city often when I was young by my grandfather and my uncle who both had (have) such a love for the city and so it wore off on me. I’d rather be in the middle of Philadelphia on any given day than be fishing out in the country somewhere. This picture is just as beautiful as I’d want it to be. Thanks for sharing.

  3. jillians said:

    This is a great post- you really make me want to go re-visit City Hall. The last time I was there was in grade school when clearly the appreciation for what is, was not there.

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