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Newall: After 25 years, waving goodbye to Billy Penn

Greta Greenberger's job is not a job. It's been more like a quarter-century love affair. Between her and City Hall, of course. Between her and Billy.

Greta Greenberger pauses in her favorite part of City Hall.
Greta Greenberger pauses in her favorite part of City Hall.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Greta Greenberger's job is not a job.

It's been more like a quarter-century love affair. Between her and City Hall, of course. Between her and Billy.

The woman who has long led City Hall's tours - once a modest affair, now a mainstay of the grand old building - often waves up at the towering, bronzed object of her devotion.

"Bye, Billy," she says. "I'll be back."

And she always returned. Always came back to share some obscure architectural marvel or illuminate some otherwise forgotten bit of history. Always returned to share her love with others.

But, alas, Greenberger is preparing to wave goodbye to Billy one final time. After 25 years, the tour director who has always treated the century-old municipal building with the reverence deserving of a museum is retiring.

Her final shift is scheduled for Friday. The city is losing a treasure. City Hall is losing a part of itself. Yes, it's a place of insider politics and endless wheeling and dealing and sometimes corruption, but it's also a place where you can get a delightful tour from a delightful woman on a free afternoon.

"She knows so many stories about City Hall and makes them come alive with a special type of vibrancy and enthusiasm," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who as mayor created the visitor center and asked Greenberger to run it. "I don't know how you replicate that. It will be huge shoes to fill."

Or, as volunteer tour guide Phyllis Halpern put it: "There will never be another Greta."

One afternoon last week, Greenberger was busy with what seemed an impossible task: cleaning off her crowded desk in the old City Hall classroom she long ago transformed into a visitor center.

"It's going to be so hard to be away from here," she said with a sad smile.

Greenberger, a former high school art teacher who lives in East Mount Airy with her husband, former Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, was leading tours for the Foundation for Architecture when Rendell brought her on board full time in 1992.

To her, Philadelphia was a museum of architecture and City Hall was its prize jewel.

"The richness of the architecture, it speaks to people," she said. "Its light, its shadows, its textures, its sculptures. You look at it all and it just says, 'How magnificent am I?' "

But 25 years ago, it was not so magnificent; it needed a good cleaning, really.

"It was just grim," she said.

While rehab projects polished up the building's exterior, Greenberger went to work unearthing its forgotten history.

Like the massive lighted chandelier in the Mayor's Reception Room. It wasn't a gift from France like long thought, but rather was made right here in Philadelphia. In her research, she found drawings.

Or, the statue of George Washington in Conversation Hall. Not many knew that it had long stood in front of Independence Hall. Then the general's marble weakened and his sword broke. He was shipped over to City Hall for a bronze replacement.

When things fell apart, Greta raised money to put them back together. Like the bronze finial that had dropped from the chandelier in the reception room. It took a year and a half to raise the funds to replace it, but she did.

If she has a legacy, she hopes it's the gates: the gorgeous, historically accurate gates that were installed in the courtyard last year. She unearthed those drawings, too.

On her tours, she shied away from municipal scandals, preferring to focus on the beauty found in William Penn's former Centre Square.

Like the grandeur of her favorite room: Council Caucus Room, which with its ornate, domed ceiling feels more like the inside of a cathedral than a meeting room for pols.

She was back at her desk one day last week, boxing photos of that time she climbed scaffolding to tape-measure Billy's nose, when the phone rang.

A man from Dallas wanted to schedule a visit.

"Dallas," Greenberger said, in excitement. "I'll explain one other piece of history."

Did he know that Dallas was named after a onetime mayor of Philadelphia, George Dallas?

Did he know that George Dallas ascended to the vice presidency under James Polk and was involved in the settling of different parts of Texas?

Then, she stopped herself and said, simply: "Come on our tour."