Worcester's City Hall
By Alexa Ferrer

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Situated on the Common, fronting Main Street, Worcester's City Hall is once of the most cherished structures of the city. Located in the downtown area, City Hall opened in April of 1898 on the site of the Old South Meeting house, which had functioned earlier as the original town hall. The city green of turn-of the century Worcester was a perfect location for its central government. City Hall was intended to be the main building for Worcester and development expected to flourish around it. It still functions in official operations and business to residents of Worcester today.

Rich in architectural design, some of the building's prominent features are its elegance and massive form. A sense of dignity is communicated by expressive detail, seen through decorative paneling, free standing columns and fixtures. Power is expressed through projecting porches, window balconies and the façade's grand central staircase. Created from blocks of granite, City Hall is a classic example of Italianate, a type of Renaissance Revival style. Constructed by the Norcross brothers, it was designed by Robert Peabody and John Stearns in the manner of an Italian palazzo, or palace for the people of Worcester.

Robert Peabody, design specialist and business leader of Peabody and Sterns began his career in architecture working for Boston architect, Gridley J. F. Bryant after graduating from Harvard College in 1866. Soon after, he left for Europe and broadened his architecture education in London and Paris. Peabody remained abroad until he joined a partnership with John Sterns Jr. The two organized a firm in Boston which soon after would take the name Peabody and Sterns (Holden 114). The company worked under the influence of various styles of architecture; Queen Anne, Colonial and Renaissance to name a few. Peabody's later years were marked with great success as he served as President of the American Institute of Architects in 1900 and chaired the Boston Society of Architects' Committee on Municipal Improvements for development in the Boston area in 1906 (Holden 116). He also devoted much of his time to writing and presenting articles detailing his architecture experience and knowledge of assorted styles. Peabody and Sterns, a dynamic pair, were responsible for the construction of banks, post offices, such as Boston's Post Office Tower 1913-15 , churches, private residences, libraries, schools, town and city halls, exposition buildings and office buildings around Massachusetts and throughout the country. (Holden 131).

One of the main characteristics of Peabody and Stern's architectural forms is the use of a cupola or tower (Holden 117). This touch is noted in Worcester's City Hall which has an impressive clock tower and is considered by some as the heart of downtown. In keeping with the Italianate design, the building and tower, is often compared to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence Italy, dated somewhere in between 1299 and 1310. The Palazzo Vecchio, a city hall in Florence, served the public in many aspects like its counterpart in Worcester. It was a meeting place for local government and a place of business for citizens (Paoletti & Radke 55). The Palazzo Vecchio and City Hall have various features in common. In terms of form they are both rectangular in shape and blocky in design. Both have courtyards on the ground floor, a magnificent hall for important meetings and an upstairs for administrative and government offices. Even closer with its several stages and pinnacle is the tower of Pienza's Palazzo del Pretorio, dated 1460.

Another prominent feature of Peabody and Stern's is the use of a grand staircase. Characteristically for the firm, two pairs of stairs on each side would lead to a front porch or some type of balconied space (Holden 124). This is particularly evident on the front of City Hall where two spiral stairs converge under a covered balcony. This type of entranceway is Renaissance inspired. A preference for grand entrances in Palazzo architecture is associated with elegance, strength and classic beauty. For private owners, it was a sign of their wealth and for public buildings and churches it was a symbol of art in its most powerful form (Burckhardt 147). Clearly, Peabody and Sterns was after the same idea for City Hall. The large blocks of stone on the façade of the building add a sense of power while details such as the arches and columns on the entrance give sophistication to the structure.

Other characteristics of the Italianate Revival design represented in City Hall are long paired windows and the use of columns. Throughout the exterior of the building, arched windows on every section of the building are noted. The side windows of the front and back entrances are plain with pilasters while the top and bottom rows are small and square in shape. Other central windows have lavish balconies, which is stylistic of the Venetian type of as exemplified by Verona's Palazzo Bevilaqua designed by Michele Sanmicheli (Burckhardt 139).

Column use in Italy during the Renaissance was widely used for the architecture of public buildings. Columns, still classical in style, became slimmer and fluting was introduced as a decorative function to ordinary walls. The arch is also a major characteristic of this style. It too, became slender and heightening of the arch was made popular by various architects of that time. The Corinthian Order is the richest and most opulent of the orders while the Doric and Ionic columns add simplicity to design (Burckhardt 35-38). Peabody and Sterns' structure embodies these Italian characteristics. Corinthian Orders attached to the window arches enhances the luxurious decoration while adding to the lavish architecture of the building. Ionic and Doric Orders, located in the interior of City Hall, complement the wealth of the structure with a sense of classic, simple design.

The interior of City Hall is similar to the inside of numerous palazzos in Italy. An example is the Cancelleria,on the right,
a Roman structure of 1486. City Hall, like these palazzos, has multiple rows of arches supported by columns, which encircle all four floors and even down each of the hallways. In between each arch is a circular ornament used for decoration.This technique was common in Italian architecture and can be seen in the Cancelleria (Heidenreich 69-73). Another commonality between these buildings is the familiar look of the barrel vaulted ceiling with the use of coffering, rectangular recessed decoration. The coffering at the Cancelleria is plain while the City Hall shows complex painted plaster designs. Cast iron was used for City Hall while stone was used for the palazzos. City Hall's interior marble staircase, dividing into two smaller stair paths again is very characteristic of the Italianate design. It functions, like the exterior one, much in the same way, but as a more decorated piece. Additionally, City Hall contains prominent brackets, dentils and eaves under the low-pitched roof, likening it to a Palazzo style building.


Like many architectural structures of the Renaissance, City Hall strives for beauty in harmonious form and mathematical precision. Evenly spaced windows varying in shape and size complemented by stone pilasters are symmetrically placed throughout the four rows of windows. The porches, balconies, columns and arches demonstrate the importance of using precise angles to convey strength, sophistication and exact order. Decoration and ornamentation embodies harmony in a more elegant manner. Arabesques throughout much of the exterior as well as the interior of the structure express Peabody and Stern's use of the Italianate design. Such arabesques are highly naturalistic and include, heads of animals, a lion on the inside stair case, intertwining leaves and branches on the clock tower, garlands with medallions on stone pillars and other such opulent ornaments.

City Hall, in structure and in decoration, exemplifies a time when historical revivals were a standard part of architectural and civic consciousness. Worcester saw at almost the same time the erection of the Worcester Women's Club, now known as Tuckerman Hall, in the Federal Revival Style. Only two years earlier the Norcross Brothers had completed St. Matthew's Church working with a plan by Stephen C. Earle that was inspired by English rural Gothic churches. At the height of its economic and civic power, the city linked its present to memories of great buildings of the past.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
City of Worcester. http://www.ci.worcester.ma.us.
Heydenreich, Ludwig. Architecture In Italy (1400-1500). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Paradis, Tom. Architecture Styles of America. Northern Arizona University. http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~twp/architecture/italianate/
Holden, Wheaton. "The Peabody Touch," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 32/ I (March 1973): 114-.