Clio Logo

Philadelphia's iconic City Hall building is the largest municipal building in the United States and took thirty years to complete. For many years, this was the tallest building in the city until the completion of One Liberty Place in 1987. This impressive building replaced a previous city hall which was located at 5th and Chesnut until 1871. With granite that is 22 feet thick in some places, no expense was spared in the building's construction which continued in phases until 1901. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as a national survey of the 150 most significant buildings in the United States.


  • Philadelphia City Hall was built between 1871 and 1901.
  • A massive statue of William Penn tops City Hall's tower
  • The head of William Penn's statue before it was assembled

When Pennsylvania's founder, William Penn, designed the city of Philadelphia in 1681, he set aside five parcels of land public spaces, including what he called Centre Square. The square would be the site of public buildings, including city hall. It took roughly two hundred years for Penn's vision to come to fruition. 

Philadelphia's original City Hall was located at 2nd and Market Streets. When the Independence Hall complex was completed, the building was moved to 5th and Chestnut Streets.The decision to build a new city hall was also based on the changing nature of the city. The city and county were consolidated in 1854, doubling the population of Philadelphia. Old City Hall, a modest, two-story building, could no longer meet the needs of the growing city, and in 1871, the current location was chosen by popular vote.

Philadelphia has a long history as one of the nation's most important cities. In the late 1800s, the city had aspirations of once again becoming America's most important urban area, and when construction of City Hall began, no expense was spared. Planners wanted a grand building to reflect the city's status. It was built in the French Second Empire style, which was popular at the time. It was a massive undertaking--the building has 14.5 acres of floor space and almost 700 rooms. More than 88 million bricks were used in the construction and the granite base of the tower has walls that are 22 feet thick in places. Construction of the building stretched into the next century, eventually taking thirty years and reaching a cost of almost $25 million.

The building's designers intended that it would be the tallest in the world, but the slow pace of construction meant that it had been surpassed by the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument when it was complete. With the addition of the 37-foot statue of William Penn at the top, however, it was--for a time--the tallest occupied building in the world. It remained the tallest building in Philadelphia until 1987 when One Liberty Place took the title. The remarkable structure can still claim to be the largest municipal building in the United States, however, with more rooms than the US Capitol. City Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a National Historic Landmark. 

Connection to MOVE Bombing:

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the city of Philadelphia continually were forced to confront the MOVE organization for several offenses over the years. These offenses ranged from weapons violations, noise complaints from neighbors, and armed standoffs.

In 1977, leading Philadelphia official, Mayor Frank Rizzo, obtained a court order that required the MOVE members to vacate the premises of their Powelton Village house at 311 North 33rd Street. This was after numerous complaints from neighbors about the disruptive life style of the MOVE organization. The following year, city officials were caught in an armed standoff with MOVE after the group failed to leave the home. This confrontation led to the death of Philadelphia Police Department officer James J. Ramp. The 9 MOVE members in the home would be charged for their collective responsibility for his death following their surrender.

By 1981, MOVE relocated to the Cobbs Creek neighborhood in Philadelphia. The group turned their new home at 6221 Osage Avenue in a battle ready compound; prepared with boarded up windows and a fortified bunker MOVE built on the roof of the house. City officials, Mayor Wilson Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, classified MOVE as a terrorist organization. In 1985, arrest warrants were obtained by police that charged 4 of the MOVE members with parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats.

While the MOVE bombing was nowhere near Philadelphia's City Hall, the decisions and actions of the leading officials, particularly those of Mayor Wilson Goode, caused a tragically devastating event that could have been handled with numerous different approaches.

On May 13,1985, almost five hundred police officers attempted to clear the building and execute the arrest warrants. Police Commissioner Sambor with a speech addressing the MOVE members that began, "Attention MOVE: This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States." MOVE did not respond, so the police decided to forcefully remove the members.

During the armed standoff that followed, tear gas canisters were thrown at the building while both MOVE and PPD fired at each other. Police shot over ten thousand rounds of ammunition before Police Commissioner Sambor ordered for the compound to be bombed using two one-pound bombs made of FBI-supplied Tovex, a dynamite substitution.

The explosion created a fire that destroyed 65 surrounding homes. The city officials withheld firefighters when the fire first began to grow and spread. Officials believed MOVE members would shoot at the firefighters. By the time firefighters were given the clear, it was too late for most of the buildings on the block.

Gillette, Howard. City Hall. Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. . Accessed February 08, 2019. https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/city-hall-philadelphia/.

City Hall. A View on Cities. . Accessed February 08, 2019. http://www.aviewoncities.com/philadelphia/cityhall.htm.

Demby, Gene. I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying to Make Sense of the MOVE Bombing, National Public Radio. May 13th 2015. Accessed Invalid date. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/05/13/406243272/im-from-philly-30-years-later-im-still-trying-to-make-sense-of-the-move-bombing.

Moore, MArtha T. . 1985 Bombing in Philadelphia Still Unsettled, USA Today. May 11th 2015. Accessed Invalid date. https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-11-philadelphia-bombing_x.htm.