Thursday, February 7, 2013

When a Museum is Another Work of Art: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1876

Thursday, February 7, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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.


Hels said...

I became interested in the Pennsylvania Academy by accident... in fact some of my best learning has been by accident :)

Dr Albert Barnes Barnes’ own building was incomplete in 1923. And as he wanted to exhibit some of his treasures then, he exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts instead. Alas the critics' responses were extremely hostile and Dr Barnes vowed never to present a public exhibition again.

What a shame. The building looks delightful.

thanks for the link
Should the Dead Hand Rule? Dr Barnes in Philadelphia

Lady Wesley said...

This building is reminiscent of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., particularly the exterior and the massive staircase. It's one of my favorite galleries in the city.

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