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A Watchful Eye Over Philly
Standing atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, William Penn casts a benevolent eye to streets below, one hand lovingly outstretched. He can afford to look beyond his central Philadelphia square (one of the originals in his city plan) because he knows the building beneath him is in good hands: Greta Greenberger’s.
As director of City Hall’s tour and visitor center, Greenberger wears many hats. She oversees the daily tours that shepherd sightseers through a functional office building; she manages a gift shop with holdings both serious (architecture books) and silly (T-shirts); she hosts dignitaries and special guests (including the occasional celebrity); and – perhaps most importantly – she champions the massive and ornate French Second Empire building that is City Hall itself.
“Philadelphia was an important city in this country’s early years, and this building represents tremendous city pride,” she says. “The fact that this building was built at all – that it could be built – is amazing. It is one of the finest examples of its kind of architecture as well as the largest municipal office building in the country.”
Designed by Scottish architect John McArthur, Jr., City Hall is embellished with more than 250 sculptures and reliefs created by Alexander Milne Calder that, in Greenberger’s words, “tell the story of people who came from all over the world to this country and the technology they used and created to make our country great.”
Greenberger herself is one of those Philadelphia transplants. She came to the City of Brotherly Love more than 25 years ago and in that time has worked in a variety of positions, all connected by a common thread: educating the public about the built world around us. The irony of her current position, which she came to at the behest of former mayor and governor Ed Rendell, is that she is not technically employed by the city, but by the Independence Visitor Center. That reality, coupled with the fact that City Hall houses all three branches of government, can present challenges.
“We have to yield to the business that goes on here,” Greenberger says. “But we have more rooms that we’d like to share than we can share in a tour, so if something is happening in one place, we go somewhere else. It’s an exciting environment where visitors might see the mayor exiting his suite or a press conference getting underway.”
Those who plan ahead can also enjoy the best view in the city. Just under Billy Penn’s feet is a circular observation gallery accessible via an elevator ride that is an attraction unto itself, thanks to glass windows that reveal the tower interior. Once at the top, Benjamin Franklin Parkway stretches out below, reaching from JFK Plaza (and Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture) to the Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle and, ultimately, to the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Visitors are also nearly at eye-level with Liberty Place, the development which violated a long-standing unwritten rule that no city building should be taller than the Penn statue. After the first Liberty Place building was erected in 1987, dwarfing Penn, no Philadelphia major league sports franchise won a national title.
Until Greta Greenberger stepped in
In 2007, Greenberger supplied a small statue of William Penn that was attached to the final steel beam of the Comcast Center – which was, at 974 feet (297 m), to become the tallest building in the city. Greenberger joined the group of dignitaries that signed the girder and, the following spring, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.
Ever modest, Greenberger declines the credit for breaking the “Curse of Billy Penn,” but she becomes animated when talking about time spent with the many school groups that come for tours.
“I really enjoy sharing this building with people,” she says. “I get great pleasure out of working with schoolchildren of all ages. So many of the children who come here have no way of relating to our government; this makes it a little more real and instills in them an awareness that they can make a difference.
“I still find it rewarding.”
Note: City Hall tours are available Monday-Friday, with a regularly scheduled interior tour at 12:30 p.m. daily. Those who wish to visit the tower and the William Penn observation deck should call at 9 a.m. the day of their visit to check availability. Phone: (215) 686-2840.