Bright Lights; Beautiful City, or a Collision of Hope and History

City Hall Illuminated during Founder’s Week (detail). October 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

Never mind that Philadelphia actually dated back to 1682, that its 225th anniversary had come and gone the year before. Philadelphians were in the grip of a new and overpowering love affair with the city and it was fine to fudge the details. In 1908, they mounted an over-the-top celebration of the original city and called it “Founders Week.” But it was really more about the bright new century than the dim and dusty past.

“There is a promise in the sky of a new day,” proclaimed Charles Mulford Robinson of the 20th century city. “The tall facades glow as the sun rises; their windows shine as topaz; their pendants of steam, tugging flutteringly from high chimneys, are changed to silvery plumes. Whatever was dingy, coarse, and ugly is either transformed or hidden in shadow. The streets, bathed in the fresh morning light, fairly sparkle, their pavements from upper windows appearing smooth and clean. There seems to be a new city for the work of a new day.”

“City Beautiful” Philadelphia would be bathed in sunlight during the day. At night, it would be brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. At the center of it all, at the intersection of Broad, Market, past and future, stood City Hall, symbolically lit, top to bottom. Founder’s Week producers strung lights along its many rooflines; they aimed searchlights hundreds of feet up to the giant statue of the founder. Down at street level, the building became a billboard for a giant portrait of William Penn ensconced in a welcoming, promising electric sunrise.

The illuminated promise was that Philadelphia’s founding purpose (whether it had been made 225 or 226 years before) was still very much alive. “Philadelphia Maneto” the electric sign flashed up and down Broad Street: Let Brotherly Love Endure.

During Founders Week, the beautiful, hopeful historic city was “choked with humanity,” residents and visitors jamming parades, receptions, unveilings, commemorations, displays, processions, and patriotic exercises. A “River Pageant” animated the entire Delaware waterfront, from Fort Mifflin to Allegheny Avenue. At Franklin Field, thousands attended “Philadelphia,” the Musical Historical Drama. Violet Oakley’ designed a “Historical Pageant” that featured operatic floats and elaborately costumed actors anticipating Hollywood’s Golden Age. On the celebration’s final day, before the fireworks, the City and the Quaker City Motor Club co-sponsored a 200-mile automobile race on a brand new “speedway” in West Fairmount Park. All in all, gushed The New York Times, it was “probably the greatest civic celebration ever held in America.”

One of the 28 Lamps at City Hall, 1909. (PhillyHistory,org)

City Hall’s lighting scheme was more than mere wattage, it was civic theater. And it had been brought to life on Saturday, October 3rd, the day before any other Founders Week events. School children from across the city convened to christen a ring of “Memorial Lamp Poles,” 28, 22-foot, cast iron lamp standards on the plaza surrounding City Hall, each with 28 glass globes. Why 28? That’s how many districts, townships and boroughs had been consolidated in 1854 to form a bigger, better, safer and more prosperous metropolis. The public plaza around City Hall was now the civic centerpiece where all citizens could embrace the past and future promise—in the brightly illuminated here and now.

“Illumination of Food Sign – North Side of City Hall.” October 4, 1917. (PhillyHistory,org)

Who could take on such a project? That would be the next generation the Royers family, the iron founders whose shop at 9th and Montgomery had been operating since just after the Civil War. Now, decades later, B. Frank Royer of Smyser-Royer would have a “complete drafting and engineering departments, designing studio, pattern shops, two large foundries, extensive machine and fitting shops” manufacturing everything from “lamp posts for Country Estates” to “Spiral Stairs and Marquises” in cast iron, bronze or aluminum. Smyser-Royer was understandably proud of their work and illustrated the City Hall lamps in their catalogs, bragging that with little more than “a coat of paint” these fixtures could last “almost forever.”

At City Hall. “almost forever” turned out to be 23 years.

After symbolic meaning drifted away, the lamps became only so much street furniture. Over the years, they blended into the backdrop of daily life. City carpenters built grandstands around them; subway contractors tolerated their presence. During the Sesquicentennial, the audience of a German oompah band crowded around them. And by the early 1930s, they were gone and forgotten.

What stands today on City Hall plaza, more than century later at a time when we take light for granted? A lonely pair of modern facsimiles, relatively dim and meaning-free.

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4 Comments

  1. JakeL
    Posted December 31, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Ken, thanks for the wonderful history on these lights. They remind me of the lights on the Market Street bridge, is there any relation? https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!data=!1m8!1m3!1d3!2d-75.179607!3d39.954372!2m2!1f321.36!2f92.17!4f75!2m9!1e1!2m4!1s2dRz50E8X-UGOD4zGsxAFQ!2e0!9m1!6sMarket+Street!5m2!1s2dRz50E8X-UGOD4zGsxAFQ!2e0&fid=5

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted December 31, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      The lamp standards on the Market Street Bridge certainly are of a similar design to the 28 installed around City Hall in 1908. But none of the many images of the bridge seem to show them. And we do know the eagles on the bridge were from Penn Station in New York and installed after the demolition of that building in the 1960s: http://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2013/08/can-philadelphia-have-too-many-eagles/. This may be yet another case of an answer raising more questions.

  2. Jennifer Mahony
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The lighting post with the spherical globes in front of Philadelphias City Hall reminds me of the famous Wagenfeld lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld. The light was introduced around the same time the city Hall was built.

  3. Ken Finkel
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The Wagenfeld lamp was introduced in 1924 – 16 years later in Germany, during the Bauhaus design movement.

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