One of my favorite museums is the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. While the Academy's collection of 19th-21st c. American art is first-rate and its history unrivaled as the oldest art museum and art school in America, what I like best is the building itself.
Designed by architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt, the building opened in 1876, the celebratory American centennial year. (The archival photograph, right, was taken soon after opening.) It looks much the same today as it did then, thanks to a 1976 restoration, just in time for the building's hundred-year anniversary, and it's breathtaking. Now a Historic Landmark Building, its design was daring and modern in the 1870s.
Architect Furness created a new kind of art museum based on then-cutting-edge factory design, incorporating skylights for natural light, ventilation for air, and making the iron support trusses integral to the design. There were also provisions made for electricity - even though the city's first electrical company was still five years in the future.
Yet this revolutionary structure was wrapped with the riot of color and Renaissance-inspired detail that was the latest in 19th c. taste. There are intricately carved columns and stonework, patterned floor tiles, cerulean-blue ceilings dotted with gold stars, and a cathedral-style rose window of American made glass.
From the moment you step inside, you're in a world that 19th c. Philadelphias would have recognized. It's easy to imagine them – the ladies in bustled skirts and flowered hats, the bearded gentlemen in tall hats, dark coats, and stiff collars – strolling through the galleries to admire the home-grown American art. They'd take pride in their elegant Academy, a building to rival what was being built in Europe, but right here in their own Philadelphia. Beauty, art, ingenuity, craftsmanship, mixed with a dose of civic pride: what's a better experience than that?
My humble photographs here don't begin to do it justice. All I can say is that if you're ever in Philadelphia, I hope you'll visit yourself.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.