Case of the missing crest
Sleuths turn up a piece of City Hall's bronze doors.
January 13, 2011|By Amy S. Rosenberg, Inquirer Staff Writer
The two doors opened off the south end of the City Hall courtyard, each at the base of a tower.
Fancifully sculpted, with carved snakes as handles, the doors held a distinction as dark as their original bronze: For most of the 20th century, prisoners on their way to court passed through them in manacles to climb to holding cells on the seventh floor.
But as architects and conservators prepared in early 2009 to restore the matching seven-foot doors - part of a project to return the landmark 1901 building to its Second Empire glory - they noticed something.
Several parts were missing.
One door, but not the other, boasted a sculpted lion's head. Same for a sculpted bare right arm holding scales of justice.
Most significantly, only one of the doors still bore on its lower half a Philadelphia city crest - the symbol-rich civic seal with two women, a scroll with an anchor and the words Philadelphia Maneto (Let Brotherly Love Endure).
The other door's crest hadn't been seen in 30 years.
How that crest was eventually found - in another city institution through whose doors many of the same prisoners once passed - is a tale as winding as the steps that reached to the seventh floor cells in City Hall.
It was a moment of civic serendipity that involved a city employee who had taken the crest, albeit with good intentions, and an ex-con returning the crest, albeit to the wrong place.
"I think I've seen a city crest," Jorge Danta, a planner with the city's Historic Commission, told conservators during hearings on the project.
It was April 2009.
Danta remembered seeing a bronze crest on a shelf six years before at another place of distinction in historic criminal Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary.
Danta had been an intern at the massive (and, around Halloween, haunted) former prison in Fairmount while a grad student. He had seen a city crest on a shelf there, where it stayed without explanation.
Sally Elk, executive director of Eastern State Penitentiary, said last week she knew only that "a man came to our administrative office with a flag and the bronze piece and dropped them off, telling us they had come from the penitentiary. We thought it was strange because it was the city seal, and the penitentiary was a state prison."
Not being able to disprove the man's assertion, Elk said, "We kept them both."
Case of the missing crest - Philly.com
Moyamensing became known for its penitentiary, violent hose company, cemeteries, wretchedly poor inhabitants, and crime. Harry C. Silcox