#WilliamPennWednesday: How Philadelphia Got Its Quaker Zeus

William Penn on City Hall Tower. (PhillyHistory,org)

Edward Hicks, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, ca 1830-40. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Even though the statue of William Penn would be bolted in place more than 500 feet above the sidewalk and seen much farther away by most Philadelphians, it really mattered that the statue on City Hall make a good first and lasting impression. After all, at 36 feet 8 inches, here would stand the tallest figure on a building anywhere in the nation, nearly 17 feet taller than the statue of Freedom on the U.S. Capitol.

“Notwithstanding its great height,” explained sculptor Alexander Milne Calder in 1886 as he worked on the figure, Penn “will be quite plainly visible from the street, therefore every care has to be taken with regard to the features and every other detail.” What Calder had in mind was a statue facing South Broad Street, its bronzed expression bathed in sunlight. When the sculptor’s plans were scrapped by a new architect who turned Penn’s face away from the sun to gaze to the Northeast, and Penn Treaty Park, the scorned sculptor quipped that his greatest work had been “condemned to eternal silhouette.”

In fact, Calder had a number of reasons to turn his Penn’s back on the past, especially the place where he and the Native Americans may have signed a treaty. In his modernized redo of Penn, Calder wanted to pull away from the old image (and the myths they rode in on) to create something entirely new. “What we want is William Penn as he is known to Philadelphians, not a theoretical one or a fine English gentleman.” And as he worked, Calder admitted he felt conflicted. “I have not absolutely settled upon the final figure,” he added.

Calder also felt the heat. Ever since 1872, when John McArthur, City Hall’s original architect, proposed to replace the first idea an allegorical figure of Justice with a statue a real person, there had been no shortage of opinions as to how this giant Penn might be made to look. This image would dominate the city’s skyline immediately and, presumably, forever.  What it might suggest about Philadelphia, Philadelphians (and Philadelphia history) mattered then, and Calder knew it would matter now.

He hadn’t gotten any real pushback on the hundreds of statues he created for City Hall closer to the ground—figures people could actually see, but didn’t care all that much about. After working 13 years on the massive project, when he finally got to the tower groupings and to the largest sculpture of all, Calder planned on going for a “manly beauty,” something different than the Rotund, Bejowled Founder painted by Benjamin West in the 18th century or the Jolly Penn reinforced ad nauseum by Edward Hicks’ paintings in the 19th.

City Hall Tower-Statue Penn’s Head ca. 1892 (PhillyHistory.org)

Historians really had nothing to go on, there were no portraits of Penn at that time to serve as a guide, but that didn’t stop them from insisting on accuracy and authenticity. They argued at length about Penn’s clothing and the style of his hat. City Fathers, who had seen the project take far longer and become far more expensive and controversial than they had ever dreamed, just wanted building and sculpture done—with no further embarrassments.

What could possibly be embarrassing in 1886? A roly-poly Founder-figure defining the skyline, perhaps. Or a statue reminiscent of the corrupt, Gilded Age politician (see Thomas Nast’s caricature of Boss Tweed). This was the year Philadelphia politician Boies Penrose, aka “Big Grizzly,” a man of massive appetite (he was known to have a dozen eggs for breakfast and a turkey for lunch) and great girth (he’d reach 350 pounds) took his seat to the State Senate.

What could be embarrassing atop the white-marble frosting of City Hall? A figure recalling President Grover Cleveland’s White House wedding from the previous June. Cleveland stood firm in his wedding picture as the heaviest American president to date. (In time, only Taft would outweigh him.)

So it did matter—a lot—what this new Penn looked like. And as he worked through a series of maquettes, Calder would come to give his Penn a complete makeover, figure and face. He’d lose the gut and the double chin, acquiring a dimple. He’d get fancy ruffles, buckles and curls. Most of all, Calder made a figure that could stand almost joke-free. He gave the city a Quaker Zeus—if such a thing was possible.

Something to celebrate this #WilliamPennWednesday.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Cahill
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink
    • Ken Finkel
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      Ah, yes. I’ll amend this – adding “almost.”

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