“Behind the ever open gate
No pikes shall fence a crumbling throne,
No lackeys cringe, no courtiers wait, —
This palace is the people’s own!"
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1888, Dedication of the City Library of Boston
“I’m going to the mayor’s office tomorrow!!” I texted my high school friend group.
My classmate Hannah and I had been tasked with dropping off a poster for Vote That Jawn (VTJ) at the mayor’s office for our creative writing class. I couldn’t believe that barely a month into college, I was meeting the mayor and would maybe even get a selfie with him. I fantasized about beige walls, royal blue curtains with gold tassels, and American flags on huge poles. I wondered why the rest of my class hadn’t jumped at the chance to go.
Since I first visited Philadelphia in 11th grade, the cool granite French Second Empire style palace housing City Hall has figured among the few buildings that have left a lasting impression on me, a list including Charles Follen McKim’s Boston Public Library and Daniel Hudson Burnham’s National Museum of Natural History in DC. And with looming pointed towers, pedimented windows, and spiked railings, it looks more like a rectangular fortress protecting hidden secrets than a public administration building. That and the daunting title of Mayor’s Office cemented the idea in me that this was somewhere only for important people.
Though I knew American local politics was meant to be participatory — its buildings were public, its politicians were Public Servants, I always envisioned government buildings as places visited only by those who were either in trouble or famous. Additionally, I reserved a special sort of cynicism for buildings touted as belonging to “the people,” possibly due to my experiences in my own city, Shenzhen. Like many Chinese government buildings, Shenzhen’s City hall, a colossal red, blue and yellow building shaped like a wave perched on two pillars, is called the Shenzhen People’s Government. Spanning four city blocks, surrounded by an austere concrete plaza, and barricaded by yet another 1620 by 2200-foot landscaped forest, it looks like anything but the people’s. This seeming exclusivity and mysteriousness of government buildings made me all the more enticed by the idea of entering one.
Upon arriving that day, my classmate Hannah and I signed in in the lobby and were handed freshly printed name tags, adding to my excitement. After climbing up a winding spiral staircase, I arrived at a wooden double door behind which was a circular plaque inscribed “Office of the Mayor, City of Philadelphia.” Beyond the door was a small, warmly lit office with polished mahogany walls.
Wow, the mayor’s a pretty low-key guy, I thought to myself.
A young woman in a pink and black floral blouse asked us who we were here to see. I mumbled something about dropping off a poster and to my surprise, she had no idea what I was talking about.
Had Ms. Cary not made an appointment? I wondered. How did I, a college student, just stroll into the mayor’s office?
We explained that we were dropping the poster off for a voter registration initiative, Vote That Jawn, gave her the poster, posed for a picture in front of the office, and left.
That question didn’t have long to brew inside me because before long, I was on my next trip to City Hall, this time with my professor, Lorene Cary, for the writing class. It was 9 a.m. and we were here to talk to City Council members about Vote That Jawn. As we entered the Council Chamber, Ms. Cary gestured towards a man with thinning white hair dressed in a gray pin-striped suit.
“That’s Councilman Greenlee,” she said.
She told me to approach him to talk about VTJ and ask to photograph him wearing one of our black and purple VoteThatJawn! hats. I inched towards him, dreading interrupting his conversation with another councilman, and was relieved that he noticed me and said hello. We struck up a conversation about Vote That Jawn and shared a few laughs about Philly slang like the word Jawn (which roughly equates to anything and everything). I handed him the hat, and he agreed to my taking a picture of him wearing it. Afterward, leaving the building, I strolled through the center courtyard and passed a busker with a guitar and another playing the violin. A young family with a stroller sat on a bench beside which a sign read Willkommen! Bienvenue! Nihao! Bienvenido! and several other iterations of Welcome! in languages I couldn’t recognize. Coming out of City Hall that day, I felt less like an intruder — the pesky, out of place kid in a Penn hoodie and lanyard in a building of adults in suit and ties. Maybe even like I belonged there.
When I entered City Hall for the third time, to attend the culminating ceremony for #VoteThatJawn, I recognized and said hello to the guard in the lobby. As the boxy elevator opened with a familiar ding, I went out, took a right, and walked through the hallway toward the Mayor’s Reception Room, admiring the sculptures and wrought iron gate I crossed along the way.
This room looked like it came straight out of a royal palace. An ornate metal chandelier hung in the center, illuminating a high-vaulted chamber with a striking navy and gold carpet. All around, portraits of past mayors in polished wooden frames lined pale yellow walls. At the front of the room: a heavy wood and marble mantel flanked by an American flag to the left and the flag of Philadelphia to the right. Stepping in, we were welcomed by a drum and piano trio setting a lively tempo for the event. Guests trickled in until finally, the ceremony started. One by one, speakers rose to tell their stories. One of my classmates spoke of a 12-year-old who went out with her grandmother to register voters on the street. A student from Temple University College Democrats told us about her group’s experiences setting up tables in the subway to register voters on the go. And as I soon found out, the podium from which they were speaking, an unimposing waist-level wooden structure with a circular golden crest on the front, was the same podium from which the mayor addresses his most important guests.
I could not help but marvel at that fact. This podium offers the common person a voice, a jab at importance in a room that has been graced by two centuries of mayors and thousands of their guests. The elaborate palace, in all its architectural grandeur, now meant so much more to me. Rather than simply flaunting its importance, it is a monument to public knowledge and democracy, a physical embodiment and reminder of the goals, ideas and origins of all those who pass through it. In a room abuzz with college students, professors, and others who were involved with Vote That Jawn, it now made sense. The floors of offices offering services to Philadelphians, the sign in the courtyard, and the ability of a college student to walk in and talk to a city councilman before he enters his weekly council meeting converged to one truth. Philadelphia City hall truly is a palace. As American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Boston Public Library, this is a palace for the people.
Anna Duan is a freshman at Penn majoring in urban studies. She blogs about cities and architecture and writes in Penn’s food magazine, Penn Appetit. Anna has lived in Maryland and Shenzhen, China, where she worked with the Shenzhen Museum on translating their archives into English. Away from her desk, she enjoys hiking, weightlifting, sharp cheddar, and getting lost in cities.