Unpacking the phallic fallacy atop Philadelphia City Hall

Conrad Benner investigates a question that haunted his teenage years in Philadelphia and uncovers the history behind Billy Penn’s eyebrow-raising pose atop City Hall.

Listen 5:51
When viewing the statue atop City Hall of William Penn from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Penn's hand might appear to be a different sort of bodily appendage. (Conrad Benner/WHYY)

When viewing the statue atop City Hall of William Penn from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Penn's hand might appear to be a different sort of bodily appendage. (Conrad Benner/WHYY)

This story is part of Our Space, a collaboration between author Conrad Benner, PlanPhilly, and WHYY’s News and Information Community Exchange. Our goal: to talk with Philadelphians about the spaces we share.

Imagine you are standing on Broad Street in Center City and looking up at the 37-foot bronze man standing atop City Hall — the city’s founder and planner William Penn. Now think about what you see: Penn is standing straight with his right arm extended in front of his body. From this angle, the long-haired man in a broad-brimmed hat and breeches appears to be ready for a handshake.

But now imagine you have walked a few blocks northwest to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and looked up again. The hand now appears to be a different sort of bodily appendage.

As a Philly high school kid, I’d take the train into Center City with my friends and without fail, when we ended up on the Parkway, we would look up and laugh. Our teenage minds could not unsee the phallus hanging out over City Hall.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

I think I just assumed at that point that Penn’s junk was there on purpose — art’s weird, right?

Jennifer Hansel hosts guided tours of Philly. She says roughly seven out of ten people on her tours notice Penn’s “pen” and ask her about it. “I remember before COVID started I had an all-girls trip and they noticed it before I said a thing,” Hansel said.

Marisa Velázquez-Rivas is a graphic designer and street artist. She’s seen it too.

“Obviously, the first thing is, yes, you can see a [phallus] from some angles, and it’s such a bummer because I know he didn’t do it with a purpose.”

Art history supports Velázquez-Rivas. It’s extremely unlikely Alexander Milne Calder meant to make his 26-ton Billy Penn R rated.

But the idea that Calder intended the phallic reference traces back to the artist’s frustration with a last-minute decision to position the statue facing northeast atop City Hall, when he had always planned for it to face south.

Facing south, the artist claimed the statue would be in light most of the day, where facing northeast it would live in perpetual shadow. Alas, the decision was made above his head by the Public Buildings Commission. Calder aired his grievances publicly at the time.

Was he mad enough to turn the sculpture that would define his legacy into a practical joke? That’s extremely unlikely. For one, the cast of the statue was made years before the Public Buildings Commission decided to change its orientation. Not to mention that the final Penn statue was displayed in City Hall’s courtyard for about two years before it was lifted above the city and erected in 1894. But perhaps most importantly, the only real vantage point that offers the illusion of Penn’s penis — the Parkway — wasn’t even proposed until 1906. History shows Calder was a talented sculptor but there are no signs he was psychically aligned enough for a joke that would land decades later.

“When you do research, and you do the timeline, and you look at all the circumstantial evidence, it’s [clear there is no phallus],” Hansel said.

Marisa Velázquez-Rivas, the street artist, though, has thought about how she would remake the statue if given a chance. In 2018, she created an artwork that replaced Penn atop City Hall  with a statue of an anonymous woman of color wearing a sweatshirt that reads “You Belong.”

“Knowing how crucial Penn was to the creation of Philadelphia and how iconic that 37-foot tall statue is, I wanted to replace it with someone you might easily find walking down your street. An indistinguishable character that is, at the same time, recognizable and relatable to so many people.” Her vision doesn’t give the option of a phallic sighting.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal