Photography

Faded Beauty

November 15, 2011 | by Peter Woodall

Old Town Hall | Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Perkins Collection

Germantown Town Hall stands vacant, an unsurprising outcome for a building that was constructed more for political than practical reasons, not once, but twice. The first Town Hall, popularly called Old Town Hall, was designed by architect Napoleon LeBrun, and built on the site in 1854. Germantown was one of many independent municipalities that spent as much as possible prior to being consolidated with Philadelphia in 1854, knowing that the city would assume all existing debts. Paradoxically, both iterations of the Town Hall were a way for Germantown to symbolically assert its independence from Philadelphia.

The city was now saddled with a building it would struggle to find a use for. Over the years it housed a police station, hosted traveling shows and political meetings, and served as a hospital during the Civil War. In 1920, the building was declared structurally unsound and demolished. A new Town Hall was promptly built on the site thanks to Mayor J. Hampton Moore’s campaign promise to house all municipal functions in city-owned buildings.

Merchant’s Exchange Building | Historic American Buildings Survey

Architect John Penn Brock Sinkler modeled the Beaux Arts/Classical Revival building at 5928 Germantown Avenue on William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange building on 3rd and Dock Street in Old City. The clock tower and rotunda facing Germantown Avenue solved several design problems at once. It was well suited to the awkward, triangular lot, with a place for the bell and clock from the old Town Hall building, and a stately space for two memorial tablets memorializing the 123 sons of Germantown who died in WWI. The building was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1925.

Initially, the Highway, Survey, Tax and Magistrates offices were located in Germantown Town Hall, in keeping with Mayor Moore’s campaign promise, but the City later centralized these functions, and by the 1980s, only a few city offices occupied the space. The Town Hall has been vacant since 1998 when a City Community Services office closed. It is owned by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), and is currently for sale for $400,000. The building has deteriorated significantly, and conversion to office space has been estimated at $10-$15 million.

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About the Author

Peter Woodall Peter Woodall is the Project Director of Hidden City Philadelphia. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.

4 Comments:

  1. Ethan Wallace says:

    I have wanted to photograph this place for years. I hope it is one of the sites for the next festival!

  2. Darla Jackson says:

    Beautiful!

  3. NickFromGermantown says:

    This is a building that absolutely, positively must be saved. And I’m not saying that as the ultimate Germantown and Philadelphia homer that I am. I say that as a fan of architecture and what this building means to the surrounding neighborhood.

    While I don’t have delusions about this building causing the renaissance of my neighborhood, I do think that it is a severe deterrent as it is a constant reminder of what Germantown has become. By finding new uses for it and finding funds to renovate it, I think there would definitely be some dividends paid.

  4. Andy Trackman says:

    This is a great building, one I pass every day bringing my daughter to school. I know there have been efforts to try to do something to save it, but the cost of renovation, and a practical reuse for the building, seem elusive. Bringing attention to it as part of the next festival could bring some new ideas and money. I just hope the place lasts long enough.

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