One of the embellishments planned to improve the city’s overall physical appearance was a new City Hall. In 1869, local architect John McArthur, Jr. was named the winner in a competition to design the new building. McArthur was forced to rework the design when a public referendum forced its site to be changed from the originally intended Independence Square to eight blocks farther west at Center Square. Excavation began on Aug. 10, 1871, for the final design done, as were its contemporaries such as New York’s Equitable Building, in the stylish Second Empire, whose namesake French government had been overthrown after the capture of its Emperor by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan while the building was being designed. While not breaking any new ground in its “style,” the city had high hopes that its new building could regain a bit of its former glory by requesting McArthur to include a tower that was to be the tallest structure in the world. At that moment the tallest structure in the country was the 281’ tall steeple of New York’s Trinity Church.
In plan, McArthur lined the perimeter of the square site with its four-storied double-loaded corridors. The remaining unused interior of the site was left open as a courtyard, in which, immediately adjacent to its entry lobby McArthur had located the planned 548′ tower (that included the 37′ bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin by Alexander Milne Calder, grandfather of the artist who would in the future invent the “mobile”).
At the time that McArthur was designing the building, construction on the Washington Monument had been dormant since 1854 when construction on the monument had been abandoned after it had reached only 170′ of its planned 600′ height designed by Robert Mills in 1846. It was not known at this time if it would ever be completed to its originally-planned height or what its final height might attain, so little consideration was given it in determining the final height for the Philadelphia tower.
Its current condition stood as a testament to the state of the national will of the time: while the original ambition was to build the tallest structure in the world, the American government and its people could not deliver the goods. The revival of nationalistic pride that accompanied the centennial in 1876 would finally pressure Congress to address the project. In August 1876, Congress passed a joint resolution in which the Congress, “in the name of the people of the United States, at the beginning of the Second Century of the National Existence, do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument in the city of Washington.” The privately funded Monument Society ceded its property, including the half-constructed obelisk, to the Federal Government, and the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a review of the structure’s foundation.
Meanwhile, the objective in setting the final height of the City Hall tower at 548′ was to make it the tallest structure in the world, overtaking not only the current record held by the 466’ spire of Strasbourg Cathedral but also the planned 490′ tall twin steeples of the Cologne Cathedral. It is a little-appreciated fact that even before the Prussian’s crushing defeat of the Second Empire in 1870/1, the French and the Germans had been engaged in a very serious game of nationalistic one-upmanship in terms of who had the tallest building in the world.
Strasbourg had been an Imperial (the “German” Holy Roman Empire) Free City since 1262. The construction of its cathedral spanned the period 1176-1439, a period in which the city was “German.” Its 466’ tall spire had been the tallest structure in the world since 1647, when a lightning strike had destroyed the 495′ spire of St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany. (Many still considered the Great Pyramid in Giza to have been the tallest at this time, but although its original height had been 481,’ over the millennia its exterior limestone casing had been removed that had reduced its height to its current 451.’)
This was the record-holding position it held in 1681 when Louis XIV forcibly conquered Alsace and annexed the city into the Kingdom of France. This “temporary” ownership by the French, however, had not prevented Goethe from reminding one and all that it had been a German who had originally designed it in his 1772 essay, On German Architecture, “thank God that [we Germans] can proclaim that this is German architecture, our architecture. For the Italian has none he can call his own, still less the Frenchman.”
Notwithstanding the building’s German heritage, French cultural chauvinism had grown accustomed over the past 190 years to having the tallest building in the world. (Even though in April 1794 following the revolution, its tower had been slated for demolition by iconoclastic radicals who argued that it was counter to the idea of equality. Fortunately, Strasbourg did not share the same destiny of destruction as had the Cluny Abbey, for within a month a group of townspeople stopped the plan by constructing a huge, sheet metal Phrygian cap over the top of the tower). But like so many other embarrassments that resulted from the 1870-1 war with Prussia, Strasbourg, as part of Alsace, was “lost” by the French when it was annexed into the new German Empire.
Then in 1874, the spire of St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, newly designed in 1846 from the ground up by British architect George Gilbert Scott, the designer of London’s Midland Hotel in front of St. Pancras station, was completed to a new record of 483,’ that only poured salt into the French post-war psyche. The French would reclaim the record within two years in 1876 when Rouen Cathedral, whose lantern spire had been destroyed by lightning in 1822, received a new cast iron spire that was completed to the purposeful height of 495′ in order to be taller than the final projected height of the spires of Cologne Cathedral, then nearing completion.
But this record held for only a short four years, however, for the finials on Cologne’s spires were simply made even taller. Kaiser Wilhelm I, who had been crowned at Versailles only nine years earlier, once again was happy to deliver the coup de grace to the French by dedicating the 515′ high twin towers of Cologne Cathedral on August 14, 1880.
The absurdity of continuing to use masonry bearing walls to support taller and taller structures was self-evident as Philadelphia’s 548’ tower would require walls at its base to be in excess of 22′ thick. It proved the sheer folly of building a skyscraper to this height using only load-bearing masonry as it also took twenty-three years to construct, not being completed until 1894. Its height was not the only, nor the primary cause for the long period of construction, however; it was due to the city’s infamous municipal corruption. By the time the tower was finally completed, however, the Washington Monument had been completed in 1885 to the final height of 555,’ only to be surpassed by the 984’ Eiffel Tower four years later. When completed, the 548′ high City Hall was neither the tallest building in the world, nor was its Second Empire dress even in fashion. The building never garnered the celebrity it was hoped to achieve.
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