When Philadelphia’s “Earth Mother” Bit The Dust

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets. Detail: Statue of Demeter over entrance. Photograph by Madill, May 19, 1925.

Broad Street once had its very own Greek Goddess, a two millennia-old statue of Demeter, aka Ceres, aka the Fertility Goddess. Zeus’s mate and Persephone’s mother had presided for decades under a spreading Hawthorn tree in the courtyard of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at 10th and Chestnut Streets. Then, in the 1870s, architects Furness and Hewitt had a Eureka moment as they composed the new building’s polychromatic façade of red brick, brownstone, sandstone and granite. Furness and Hewitt completed their composition with the Greek original over the entrance at Broad and Cherry, proving there was still some juice left to Philadelphia’s old claim as “The Athens of America.”

How did Philadelphia get its Greek Goddess? As Columbia University archeologist William B. Dinsmoor told it, Commodore Daniel Todd Patterson took advantage of his authority, his wealth and his presence in the Mediterranean in the 1820s. Patterson’s and his ship, the USS Constitution, were on a military mission that doubled as a treasure hunt. First Patterson and his crew visited the ruins of Carthage and made off with some large mosaics. Then, at the catacombs of Melos and Aegina they managed to buy collections of glass and terracotta. From Sunium they took pieces of the temple. And while near Athens in 1827, the Constitution anchored close enough to Megara to find the prize of the entire expedition: statues of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

A small group of “emaciated” Greeks led Patterson and his crew three miles inland to the buried statues. And where the Commodore didn’t know exactly what they were, he knew they were very ancient and very good. Claiming his purchase an act of charity to feed their families, Patterson bought the less “mutilated” of the two statues and assigned 25 of his men the job of getting his treasure to the Constitution. Patterson also did his best to acquire a key missing part. “I was unable to procure the Head ‘tho I offered a high price,” he apologized in the letter dated July 16, 1828, presenting the statue to the Academy.

More than a century later, while conducting research for his article “Early American Studies of Mediterranean Archaeology,” Dinsmoor homed in on Patterson’s exploits and concluded that this haul was indeed remarkable. Not only was the figure sculpted by the same expert hand as the Persephone Patterson left behind, Dinsmoor concluded that Philadelphia’s Demeter was “the largest piece of ancient sculpture brought to this country before the Civil War.”

Patterson also realized his scholarly efforts were too little, too late.

In the summer of 1937, fearing that the now cracked Earth Mother would kill passersby, Academy officials priced out its removal. As the discussions went on and the estimates came in, the idea of removal and restoration gave way to outright demolition. Sculptor Louis Milione claimed he could “demolish the figure for the sum of $250.”—one quarter of the estimate of bringing Demeter to earth in one piece. Academy officials quickly accepted Milione’s bid and, as The Philadelphia Inquirer soon reported, the statue was “knocked apart with maul and sledge and pneumatic drill and ignominiously hauled off.”

“The fate of the Demeter is somewhat embarrassing to consider,” wrote Dinsmoor during the depths of the Second World War, “in view of the fact that the events occurred only recently and in our own enlightened environment, rather than in Nazi terrorized Europe.”

Philadelphia’s Greek tragedy also played out as an American irony. In the 1940s, Charles Rudy recycled two chunks of Demeter’s debris and sculpted Pekin Drake and Two Hearts that Beat as One. Today, both are in the Academy’s collection.