Germantown Town Hall
5928 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places
Philadelphia Historical Commission

Form prepared by Ira Kauderer, Executive Secretary, PHC. Dated Feb. 17, 1993. Included are text and photographs of the exterior and interior, including a photo of the rotunda interior.

Classification: Occupied public building, access restricted.

Owner of property:
City of Philadelphia, Department of Public Property
1600 Arch Street, 6th floor
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103

This form includes text under the following headings:

Item number 5. Geographical Data:

"All that land beginning at the intersection of the Northwest Corner of Germantown Avenue and West Haines Street then along the north side of West Haines Street 200 feet to a point, then 85 feet northward perpendicular to West Haines Street to a point, then 235 feet along the south side Harvey Street to the intersection with Germantown Avenue, then 80 feet southward along the west side of Germantown Avenue to the point of the beginning."

Item Number 7. Description of the present and original (if known) physical appearance:

"The cast stone Germantown Town Hall stands on a trapezoidal site, facing Germantown Avenue. The building is composed of three parts: rotunda, office block and tower.

"The rotunda is two story domed space over a rusticated raised basement. Access is provided by a double transverse stair leading up to a central doorway one story above ground level. A central opening at the ground level in the base of the stair serves as a front entrance to the basement level. The rotunda is marked by a semicircular portico. Here, six two-story columns, once ionic and now without capitals, frame three bays. The peripheral bays contain paired casement windows, eight paned on the first floor and six panes above. The central bay features paired doors with a paired transom. Each of the first floor openings are framed by a modillioned entablature resting on consoles above a wide unornamented frieze. Two bronze lanterns flank the entrance. The capitals of the rotunda support a full entablature with a denticulated cornice. Here, a wide frieze is ornamented by garlands in relief. A semicircular balustrade surmounts this entablature.

"A four-sided clock/bell tower tops the dome of the rotunda. Paired Corinthian columns mark each corner and support a modillioned and denticulated entablature above. Each face of the tower has a screened, round arched opening at the level of the bell. Above the entablature, the tower holds a clock-face on each side. The clock is surmounted by a dome with a partially intact weather vane.

"The rectangular office block is nine horizontal bays in length and three stories tall. At ground level, the sixth bay from Germantown Avenue contains a entryway flanked by a pair of bronze lanterns. The other eight bays contain pairs of 2/2 double hung windows. At the second and third floor levels, the end bays project slightly. In the bay closest to Germantown Avenue the first floor windows have balconies below and pediments above. The second floors of these end bays are pierced by single 6/6 double hung sash windows. The remaining bays contain tripartite windows on each floor, separated by cast stone piers. Above, the same entablature that surmounts the portico of the rotunda continues around the building. Here, however, the balustrade is treated as a parapet wall topped by a slightly projecting cornice.

"The rear, or western facade of the building, faces a parking lot, planned by the architects. The composition of this three story five bay facade echoes that of the northern and southern facades. The rusticated ground level has a central entrance and is flanked by paired rectangular double hung windows. The end bays project slightly and contain single 4/4 double hung windows. Pilasters extend from the second through the third floors and separate the tripartite windows in the three central bays from the single pedimented first floor windows in the second floor of the end bays. At the third floor level, a single rectangular 6/6 window marks the southernmost bay has a blank window.

"The northern facade differs from the southern in two respects. First, a two story round arched window pierces the easternmost end-bay, marking vertical circulation. Secondly, windows mark each bay at ground level, with no access provided from the north.

"The interior of the rotunda consists of a two-story domed space. This highly ornamented circular room is divided into eight bays by corinthian pilasters which span the two floors above marble wainscotting. These pilasters are paired around the entryway facing Germantown Avenue to the east, the office block opposite facing west, and a stair at the bay just north of the entrance to the office block. The three openings are themselves embellished by entablatures resting on console brackets. The World War Memorial Tablets stand in the bay adjacent to the stair, and the in opposing bay across the rotunda. In addition to the names of soldiers from Germantown who died in the First World War the tablets are engraved with the words, 'We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.' The multi-colored marble floor of the rotunda has a central star ornament. The design of the molded plaster ceiling above echoes the eight bay arrangement of the circular space below, and has a central multi- paned glass oculus.

"The rotunda stair provides access to the second floor gallery, which spans the hemisphere facing the Germantown Avenue entrance. The rotunda is visible from the gallery through three square openings with eared window surrounds.

"The office block extends westward from the rotunda. The offices are arranged around a wide double-loaded corridor which extend from the rotunda on the first floor and the gallery on the second floor. These corridors lead to large offices that span the width of the building at the second and third levels."

Item number 8. Significance:

Areas of significance:

Specific date: 1923
Builder/Architect: John Penn Brock Sinkler

"Germantown Town Hall possesses significance as a fine example of the Beaux-Arts/Classical Revival Style and because of its association with the history of Germantown, Philadelphia. The building has added importance as the work of Philadelphia architect John Penn Brock Sinkler.

Architectural Style

"The Germantown Town Hall possesses significance as a fine example of the Beaux-Arts/Classical Revival Style. Beaus-Arts Classicism refers to the style popularized in the 19th century by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Sinkler studied at the turn of the century. The style is characterized by the use of articulation and expression of the building's program. Germantown Town Hall exhibits all of these features.

"The form of Town Hall is an adaptation of several Classical models, most notably William Strickland's Greek Revival Merchants Exchange at Walnut and Dock Streets of 1832. At the time of its construction, the architects deflected criticism that Germantown Colonial style should have been used by asserting that enlarging that domestic style for such a monumental public building would have been inappropriate.

"Considerations of program and siting also encouraged the adaptation of the design of the Merchant's Exchange. The intersection of Haines Street and Germantown Avenue results in a lot with an obtuse angle. The architects decided that placing the building's semi-circular end within the space created by this angle would at once satisfy the programmatic need for a World War One memorial, 'make the uneasiness of the intersection of the streets less noticeable,' (note 1) and solve the problem of where to place the 200 ton tower which was to hold the historic clock and bell from the old Town Hall. (note 2) Moreover, the Colonial portico of columns and fan shaped stairs was thought to add dignity and monumentality especially suited to a memorial.

"The designs for interior and exterior portions of the building were also derived from the study of other classical buildings. The interior detail of the rotunda was taken from the Badia Chapel in Florence. For Town Hall's tower Sinkler researched the colonial examples and chose that of New York's City Hall as a model. An architect associated with the Hall's design wrote '[t]he tower of Town Hall is almost an exact copy of the one designed by [John] McComb, with the exception of the dome or crown, which in this case was made octagonal, while in the original it was circular.' (note 3) The design of the tower provides public access to the base, which served as an observation deck."

History of Germantown

"The Germantown Town Hall building possesses significance in its association with the history of Germantown, Philadelphia. Germantown was founded in 1683 by German-speaking settlers who immigrated to Pennsylvania seeking greater independence and better financial prospects. From its beginnings, Germantown developed into a physically and socially separate town. Until 1701, Germantown had its own government, with greater powers than any other Pennsylvania town. In 1707, however, an insufficient tax base forced the town to become a township in Philadelphia County.

"By the middle of the 18th century, the six miles that separated Germantown and the City of Philadelphia no longer isolated the township. The distance was great enough, however, to make the area attractive for Philadelphians to build summer residences. Grumblethorpe of 1744, Cliveden of 1763 and Upsala of 1798 stand as a few of the several notable examples of residential development during this period in Germantown's history.

"Communication between Philadelphia and Germantown improved markedly with the construction of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, begun in 1831. By mid-century this improvement in transportation and the appeal of suburban living popularized by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing combined to turn Germantown into a 'garden suburb' of Philadelphia. The Maxwell Mansion of 1859 stands as an architecturally eclectic example of this type of residential development in Germantown.

"In the 1830s residents of Germantown began to consider organizing a borough government. Impetus for the idea was provided by increasing numbers of robberies in the township, beginning around 1838. Without a stronger government, residents believed that criminal activity would be difficult to check. Borough government was finally accomplished in 1844.

"At the same time, Philadelphia County in general had become an ungovernable conglomeration of booming industrial, agricultural and residential districts that comprised nine incorporated districts, six boroughs and 13 townships. In 1844 Irish immigration resulted in anti-Catholic riots which raged in Philadelphia, Southwark and Kensington. Concurrently, Philadelphia's volunteer fire companies began to ally themselves with street gangs in a violent battle for territory.

"In order to facilitate the establishment of law and order, an act to consolidate the City and County of Philadelphia was proposed. In 1851 the Borough of Germantown rejected this bill of consolidation. In the next few years, however, the measure gained support. When another bill was offered in the State Legislature in 1854, Germantown approved.

"During the 1840s, a period of stronger local borough government, discussion of the need for a Germantown Town Hall was taken up. The cost of the project proved to be a point of contention, and no action was taken. With consolidation, Germantown residents saw an opportunity to finally have their Town Hall.

"The measure provided that when consolidation went into effect the City would assume the indebtedness of all municipalities to be combined into it. Contemporary observers noted,

'The few years before the passing of the Act of Consolidation witnessed an orgy of spending of public money. Each district, borough and township, knowing that the consolidated city would assume its debts, hastened to spend all it could on public improvements. Within 30 days of the passage of the Act by the legislature, four and one-half millions were added to the burdens to be assumed by the City.' (note 4)
"In the months immediately preceding Consolidation the Germantown Town Council met frequently to decide how to spend the $85,000. they had raised in a bond issue. $60,000. of this sum was earmarked for a Town Hall.

"Philadelphia newspapers condemned the Germantown politicians for saddling Philadelphia with a debt that they considered needless. These newspaper critics asserted that the days when Germantown needed a Town Hall were over since it was about to cease to exist as a town. Germantown councilmen reasoned that since all the other municipalities entering the City each brought large debts, 'it would be unfair if Germantown did not reap some decided advantage from the Consolidation.' (note 5)

"The Germantown Councilmen hired architect Napoleon LeBrun to design their Town Hall. The construction contract was awarded in March of 1854. In June of that year, the Town Council held its last meeting, leaving it to the City of Philadelphia to finish the building. In addition to the debt incurred by Germantown, an additional $22,000. from the City treasury was required to finish the building. This first Town Hall was finished in 1855.

"Initially, the Germantown police station was the only municipal office housed in the new hall. The remainder of the building was rented out periodically by travelling entertainers and for political meetings. During the Civil War a wooden addition was added to the Town Hall which housed the Cuyler Hospital. (note 6) When a new bell was placed in the bell tower of Independence Hall in 1876, the old bell was moved to the tower of the Germantown Town Hall. In the first decades of the 20th century the Town Hall could more properly be called a municipal building, since by then it housed branch offices for municipal services such as the tax and gas departments.

"In 1920 the first Germantown Town Hall was declared structurally unsafe. Several factors combined to cause the City to decide to replace it with the second and present Town Hall, sited immediately east of the original one. First, in 1919 Congressman J. Hampton Moore won the mayoral election on a reform platform. At the time of his election numerous branch City offices were housed in leased buildings. As part of his platform Moore announced a policy to have all municipal offices housed in City- owned structures. This was also consistent with what was called 'an era of office distribution for the convenience of the people.' (note 7) Secondly, though Germantown, as the 22nd ward, had been part of the City of Philadelphia for nearly three quarters of a century, the community still maintained a sense of separate identity. At the Town Hall's dedication a prominent Germantown resident proclaimed, 'We are here today to dedicate the Town Hall of the fifth city in Pennsylvania.' (note 8) Indeed, with its own schools, hospital and historical society, this was not an entirely fatuous claim.

"The new Town Hall contained the offices of the Highway, Survey, Tax and Magistrates Departments. In addition, the rotunda houses a monumental space that contains a memorial to soldiers from Germantown who lost their lives in World War I. Upon the completion of the building, the 1828 Isaiah Lukens clock, made for Independence Hall and moved to the first Town Hall in 1877, was installed in the tower. Despite extensive reconditioning, the clock would not run properly, and the mechanism was eventually electrified."

John Penn Brock Sinkler

"The Germantown Town Hall possesses added importance as a major example of the work of Philadelphia architect John Penn Brock Sinkler. Sinkler was born and educated in Philadelphia. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1898. After graduation from Penn, Sinkler attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and then the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

"Sinkler returned to Philadelphia in 1902 and established a private architectural practice. By 1906 he joined E. Perot Bissel in partnership. During World War I Bissel and Sinkler became architects for the government's Emergency Fleet Housing Corporation. In this capacity the firm designed residential villages constructed to house the masses of industrial workers hired for increased wartime production.

"Sinkler worked as City Architect from 1920 to 1924. During this period the City maintained a policy that required the City Architect to design all City buildings. This policy became controversial for two reasons: it precluded other architects from receiving City contracts and because Sinkler was unable to keep up with the great volume of work for which he was responsible. Roundly criticized by Council, Mayor Moore defended Sinkler's productivity and attributed the backlog to the City Architect's small staff and great volume of work.

"During his tenure with the City Sinkler designed numerous firehouses and police stations, playgrounds and recreation centers, piers and bath-houses. Sinkler's Germantown Town Hall of 1923, has been called his 'most noteworthy' City project. (note 9)

"By 1925 Sinkler resigned his position, urging that the City Architect be allowed to choose independent architects to handle a portion of the work. His successor, John Molitor, did choose independent architects to produce many designs during his tenure as City Architect.

"Sinkler's Town Hall design appears to mark the beginning of his great interest in historic preservation which he shared with Bissel. In the same year he designed Town Hall, Sinkler produced plans for the restoration of Independence Hall. He later worked on the restoration of Woodford Mansion in Fairmount Park and The Highlands, in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.

"Sinkler continued to work with Bissel through the 1920s and 30s. From 1932-36 Bissel was chairman for the Pennsylvania State Survey of Historic Buildings. The partnership endured until Bissel's retirement in 1936. Sinkler died in 1954."


Item number 8. Major Bibliographic References:

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