Updated on 4 March 2019
The Miniature Statue of Billy Penn sits atop the Comcast Center, currently Philadelphia’s tallest building, but why is it there?
Billy Penn is the nickname residents of Philadelphia give to William Penn (1644 – 1718), the city’s founder. His father was Admiral Sir William Penn who had a distinguished navel career and later became a politician. After the admiral’s death in, his son, William, accepted the grant of land in the American colonies in lieu of money owed by the Charles II to his father.
Founding Pennsylvania And Philadelphia
The charter for the new land was granted in 1681 and Penn named the new colony Pennsylvania in his father’s memory (with Charles II’s approval). He began building a new settlement at its heart and named it Philadelphia, meaning ‘brotherly love’ in Greek.
As an early Quaker, Penn wanted a space where all types of settlers from across Europe could live in liberty and religious freedom, something which had been denied to many in England at the time. He wrote, “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it to me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation.” Therefore, with such diversity of people and faiths, Philadelphia became known as the ‘Holy Experiment’.
Every citizen in Pennsylvania would be equal under the law and this was to be upheld in Penn’s Frame of Government. This was the creation of a political utopia guaranteeing free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections. This framework would later serve as an inspiration for the United States Declaration of Independence and subsequent constitution.
In recognition of his life and works, a 37 foot-high bronze statue of William Penn was erected on top of Philadelphia’s City Hall in 1894. At this time City Hall was not only the tallest building in America, but indeed the world. Because the building was so tall, urban designer Edmund Bacon was known to have said that:
“No gentleman would build taller than the brim of Billy Penn’s hat.”
These words became an informal agreement for city planners in the continued development of Philadelphia. However, just under 100 years later, Philadelphia’s city planners allowed skyscrapers to built. In 1987, One Liberty Place became the city’s first building to be higher than the brim on Billy Penn’s hat. Thus, Bacon’s words were broken and this resulted in a so called ‘curse’ that brought bad luck to the city.
The curse was lifted in 2008 when the Comcast Center building, now the city’s tallest building, had a four-inch statue of Billy Penn put on the highest point of its roof (main picture). Therefore, making it true that no building is higher than the brim of Penn’s hat.
The ‘curse’ was broken when The Philadelphia Phillies went on to win the 2008 Baseball World Series later that year. Ten years later, in 2018, The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl for the first time in their history.