The Tallest Habitable Masonry Structure In The World Is?
Answer: Philadelphia City Hall
Today the Philadelphia City Hall doesn’t appear immediately remarkable in terms of global construction and recording holding. It’s beautifully crafted in Gothic style stonework, it stands imposing over Penn Square, and it has housed city officials for over a century, but it isn’t the tallest, the biggest, the oldest, or the most expensive building around. At the time of its construction though it was something of a record breaking darling. Upon completion of its exterior in 1894 it was, briefly, the tallest habitable building and the tallest secular structure ever built.
While those records have fallen by the wayside, the City Hall still holds a record all its own: it’s the tallest masonry structure in the world. That’s a rather specific category to exist in and for those non-engineers in the crowd we’ll explain. Modern skyscrapers are built using steel framework and curtain walls. We can build such astoundingly high buildings because the load is carried by the internal skeleton of steel and distributed down to the earth. In conventional construction where load-bearing walls are used, the weight of the building is borne by the walls and the load is distributed through the walls down to the earth. In that vein, the Philadelphia City Hall is the tallest masonry load-bearing structure in the world, standing at a height of 548 feet.
In addition to holding the record for tallest masonry structure, it is also one of the largest municipal buildings in the world. The nearly 700 rooms held within house the mayor’s offices, the city council offices, and the entire civil court (all for a city of 2.5 million).
Further, the statue of city founder William Penn (cast in bronze and standing 37 feet tall atop the hall) is the highest building-topping statue in the world. On the subject of William Penn and his statue: if you’re a fan of both superstition and trivia you’ll enjoy this closing bit of Philadelphia lore. When the City Hall was completed, there was an informal gentleman’s agreement among city planners and builders that no building would ever be constructed within the city limits such that the building obscured Penn’s view of the city or overshadowed him. This agreement (either through conscious effort or simple economics) held until the skyscraper One Liberty Place was completed in 1987.
The completion of the tower happened to coincide with a downturn of luck for Philadelphia’s professional sports teams. Despite successes on various fronts throughout the latter 1980s and beyond, the teams collectively ended their years in poor standing and decades passed without any championship wins for the city. The locals took to blaming it on the “Curse of Billy Penn” and joked (sometimes rather seriously) that because One Liberty Place overshadowed William Penn’s statue there would be no more championships. In 2007 during the construction of the Comcast Center (the tallest building in the city), workers John Joyce and Dan Ginion took it on themselves to end the curse. The two iron workers, upon the installation of the final and highest beam in the tower, affixed a small William Penn figurine to the beam. In the fall of 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series bringing the curse, as far as the citizens of Philadelphia are concerned, to a close.
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