Escapes: Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, boulevard of culture
By Robert DiGiacomo,
Philadelphia’s nearly century-old Benjamin Franklin Parkway is something of a late bloomer.
Modeled after Paris’s Champs-Elysees, the wide, tree-lined boulevard that links City Hall and downtown with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmount Park boasts some of the city’s great cultural institutions: the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, the Free Library’s Central Library. But you’ll find few of the shops, restaurants and cafes that give life to its Parisian counterpart.
Now, this month’s opening of a $150 million museum housing the Barnes Foundation’s renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern works offers one of several compelling new reasons to come to the parkway and stay awhile.
The sidewalks have been widened; the bike lanes have been painted a vibrant green. The popular Rodin is undergoing a thorough renovation. A once unkempt park has been revived. As a result, a leisurely stroll up the parkway, from John F. Kennedy Plaza, better known to locals as Love Park after its iconic sculpture by Robert Indiana, to the Museum of Art at the western end, offers an engaging ramble.
Start with the Barnes, which has long been one of the Philadelphia area’s best-kept museum secrets. Formerly located in the Main Line suburb of Merion, the Barnes possesses an eye-popping trove of more than 600 works by European and American greats, with concentrations of paintings by Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Renoir; the last is represented by 181 works, the most in any location. The eclectic holdings also include dozens of old master paintings, African sculptures and Native American jewelry and ceramics.
Albert C. Barnes, a physician who amassed a fortune in the early 20th century by inventing a drug called Argyrol, had befriended many of the artists, notably Matisse, who painted a three-panel mural called “The Dance” for the Merion gallery. An outsider who eschewed established art circles, Barnes also championed the work of American artists William Glackens, Charles Demuth, Maurice Prendergast and Horace Pippin.
The original gallery, constrained by its location in a residential neighborhood, kept limited hours and restricted attendance; it was frequently booked for months in advance. The building had fallen into disrepair and lacked the proper climate controls for the delicate paintings, prompting the gallery’s controversial move, which was documented in the 2009 film “The Art of the Steal.”
Although you lose something of the experience by not having to make a special trip to Merion, a key aspect — the quirky presentation of the art itself — remains virtually the same, but with much better lighting.
Barnes, who died in 1951, followed a “more is more” philosophy, grouping paintings in what he called “ensembles” without regard to period or medium and hanging them on burlap-covered walls painted yellow. You might find a Renoir paired with a Venetian painting by Tintoretto, accessorized by hinges, tools and other objects and accompanied by African masks, Pennsylvania German chests and decorative pieces.
Imagine your living room crammed with dozens of masterpieces, multiply that by two dozen or so rooms, and you get some sense of the Barnes’s wow factor. Aside from small tags on some paintings, the works aren’t labeled, with information about them presented on booklets stored in benches in each room.
The Barnes trustees stipulated that in the new parkway building, the founder’s ensembles be maintained exactly as they had been in Merion. The resulting experience is like that in few other museums, with the original building’s intimate scale, room sizes and window placements replicated in the gallery wing of the contemporary new facility, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects of New York. The windows are mostly uncovered, vastly improving the views of the art, thanks to new technology that permits light, but not heat, to pass through the glass.
For me, seeing the collection in its new home produced the same thrill — and sense of exhaustion — as before. In the new Barnes, there are opportunities to step back from the experience that were lacking in the old. You can sip an espresso in the cafe, lunch al fresco in the restaurant, relax in a lower-level lounge and browse through the library and gift shop.
Before or after your Barnes immersion, you can take in some of the city’s most beautiful outdoor spaces. The majestic Swann Memorial Fountain, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder and surrounded by blooming annuals and perennials, anchors Logan Circle just east of the Barnes. Nearby is Sister Cities Park, which reopened this month after a year of renovation. It features a cafe; a pond for sailing toy boats (available to rent by the half-hour for $7); a rock garden with a stream and a winding path; a spray fountain with 10 heads, representing Philly’s 10 sister cities; and that requirement of contemporary life, free WiFi.
Fully recharged, you can resume your museumgoing at one of several parkway spots. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is welcoming the Barnes to the neighborhood with a special exhibition called “Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.”
The jewel-box-like Rodin Museum, where admission is free, is being readied for a mid-July reopening that will return the interior of the 1929 building to its original glory. Its restored garden is already open to the public and features several Rodin masterpieces, including “The Thinker” and “The Burghers of Calais.”
Meanwhile, an even more venerable institution, the Academy of Natural Sciences, which recently affiliated with Drexel University, is marking its 200th year with a highly interactive exhibit. “The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery” gives you the chance to assemble a skeleton at a bone lab, learn the importance of dirt to understanding animals and their habitats, and don scuba gear to check out a coral reef and learn how to fish with a net.
The nearby Franklin Institute pairs old-school displays, such as a giant walk-through heart and a real Baldwin locomotive, with high-tech exhibits and traveling shows. The latest exhibit, “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” features 20 scrolls that are the oldest known versions of the Hebrew Bible and four scrolls that had never been displayed before.
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch, housed in a stately Beaux Arts building near the Barnes, is known for the Rare Book Department’s collection of Charles Dickens first editions and memorabilia and its stores of classical music, prints and maps. Be sure to take a peek at the recently renovated Philbrick Hall, with its checkerboard marble floor and decorative plaster ceiling.
Although you’ll always have Paris, you can now feel a little continental in Philly, too.
DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and the co-founder of online magazine the City Traveler.