Before Penn reached his peak
This week in 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.
This week in 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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday, HSP will host "A 'Melting Pot' or Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Discrimination," a free program exploring the struggles and successes of Philadelphia's immigrants throughout the city's 300-plus-year history. Visit hsp.org/Calendar.