Yo, Alice: We still have the one that got away. (It’s around here somewhere.)

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets, 1925.

It’s not every day, or even every decade, that a major museum of American art opens for business. In big cities, it’s a once-or-twice-a-century kind of thing. This week, Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens in Bentonville Arkansas “to celebrate the American spirit.” Even though the place, built on the Wal-Mart fortune, is more than 1,200 miles away from Philadelphia, we can hear the hoopla. And it might have stung our ears, had things turned out a bit differently.

By coincidence, five years ago today was the start of the most recent Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic saga. What might have been the beginning of the end of Philadelphia’s stewardship of a painting long considered “the holy grail of American painting” started with an announcement that Thomas Jefferson University would sell the painting to Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for the record-breaking price of $68 million. “This is the most important sale of a 19th-century American painting ever,” boasted the president of Christie’s Americas, which crafted the deal. Washingtonians considered landing this picture inside the Beltway on Bentonville’s dime as a big win-win.

But Philadelphians saw the situation differently. And the agreement of sale contained a small clause that, as it turned out, became a potent loophole. If locals wanted the painting they had forty-five days to match the price. Raising $1,511,111 a day, day after day for a month and a half? Sounds impossible for these recessionary times, but in the flush holiday shopping season of 2006, 3,400 Philadelphians reached deeply into their pockets and, with significant help of major philanthropy, a humongous bank loan and at least one case of controversial deaccessioning, the Eakins was ours to keep. Alice Walton would just have to make do with less.

So when they cut the ribbon in Arkansas this Veterans Day, Dr. Gross (who Eakins depicted teaching the surgical technique he innovated to save lives and limbs of thousands of Civil War soldiers) will not be in attendance. So where is the painting this Veteran’s Day, this fifth year anniversary of its near departure?

Searching for Dr. Gross, we look to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, and see one page that steers us to “Colket Gallery 151.” But he’s not there.  Another PMA webpage tells us he’s “currently not on view.” Hmmm, really? Not on view? The Academy’s website doesn’t give us a location, either.

But visitors to the museum at Broad and Cherry will find the painting hanging in Frank Furness’ central rotunda, which as it happens, was completed about the same time Eakins was painting his masterpiece.  After sixty eight million dollars and five years, you’d think we’d be more inclined to coordinate, communicate and, especially this week, to celebrate.

Could it be that we’ve begun to slip back into that old, familiar, Philadelphia complacency?  Now that’s a scary thought.


Cracking the Sculptural Code in City Hall Courtyard

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos City Hall Courtyard During Subway Construction, November 16, 1915, N. M. Rolston, Photographer.

Smack dab in the center of Philadelphia is a building with scads of sculpture and one persistent mystery. Philadelphia City Hall is encrusted with no less than 250 marble figures, heads, allegories, principles and attributes by Alexander Milne Calder and his team. It’s been called “the most ambitious sculptural decoration of any public building in the United States.” Yet, historians have always been a bit perplexed. City Hall is without “a coherent plan for the iconography.” All that marble and no meaning. How frustrating.

We’ve long suspected there are hidden clues. The building’s exterior and tower offer a cacophony of sculptural meaning. But when it comes to City Hall’s courtyard there are no figures, nothing to interpret. All we see there are the nearly plain white marble surfaces. In the courtyard, the world’s largest and most complex sculptural program comes to a dead stop.

How could this be? Why did these prolific Philadelphians, architect John McArthur, sculptor Calder and building commissioner Samuel Perkins opt for utter silence in City Hall courtyard? Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions, placing emphasis on the wrong sculptural syllable. Maybe it’s more about what isn’t there at City Hall than what is there.

McArthur, Calder and Perkins didn’t run out of ideas when they came to City Hall’s courtyard. Instead, what they embraced in this heart of the building (the heart of the city!) is the opportunity to express a startlingly modern idea. It’s a sculptural program turned inside out.

We the people complete the sculptural program of City Hall. That’s right. City Hall courtyard is an interactive, do-it-yourself civic sculpture, maybe the only of its kind. By being there, we literally bring City Hall to life. The sculptural program isn’t about sculpture, or historicism, or representations of any kind; it’s about the living, breathing here and now. City Hall comes alive in the same way a Quaker Meeting does; it’s powered by people.

Still not convinced? Stand in the center of the courtyard and look up. There, 510 feet above the sidewalk, more than 300 years in the past, stands the founder himself. We can’t see him beyond the beak of a giant eagle, but we know he’s there; we feel his presence. Look down, there’s the very center of the city he dreamed up. But it’s not Penn’s city anymore, it’s ours. The building is a timeline starting in the 1680s and ending, literally for the moment, anyway, with us in City Hall courtyard.

Standing in the center and searching for more confirmation, we look through the four portals and see the city come together at the spot where we stand, the center of the compass. Then we walk north, beneath the tower. There’s bound to be a hint of meaning there. And so there is: in the chamber criticized in 1876 as a “chamber of horrors” we see the carved heads of dominant animals from the four corners of the earth: bull, bear, tiger and elephant. They focus inward toward four robust, perfectly polished red granite columns. Atop of them are human figures, also from around the world. They are our symbolic stand ins, arms locked and straining, bearing the burden of the tower, the history that is so high above and so long ago.

But these figures are only symbolic. Standing there, witnessing and understanding, we participate in the meaning of the place, we join the continuum of Philadelphia. It’s all, as Walt Whitman once famously put it: “a majestic and lovely show—silent, weird, beautiful.”


Philadelphia’s Scariest Halloween Is Yet To Come

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Eastern State Penitentiary, passage connecting cellblock 4 and the central hub,
before stabilization, July 22, 2002. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

It used to be Halloween was for kids: all fun and screams. Now it’s into the serious stuff of big business. Halloween’s about the bottom line. And at historic sites, it’s also about another line, the one that used to be a firewall between non-profit organizations and for-profit activity. In recent times, that line has gotten very squiggly.

Many historic sites subscribe to the principle that if it’s October, it’s OK to cross that line. Come November, it’s OK to cross back again—just in time to send out those end-of-the year, tax-deductable gift appeals that stuff your mailbox.

For better and for worse, Philadelphia’s biggest player of the Halloween scare-and-switch fundraising shtick is Eastern State Penitentiary. Not long after 1994, when the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the 1820s landmark for its first season of interpretative tours, the Halloween seed was planted and nourished. Folks at Eastern State didn’t invent October magic, but they certainly reinvented it. Over the last two decades, Eastern State informs us, they’ve become “the nation’s premier haunted attraction, head and shoulders above the hay rides and other haunted houses out there. Our goal is to make you scared. Really scared.”

A couple of years ago, Haunted Attraction Magazine anointed Eastern State among the nation’s top three “must-see haunted houses” (it’s currently number 19.) Each year, the stakes grow greater and the slope gets more slippery.

Eastern State is hardly alone. Television’s Ghost Hunters (on the Syfy channel) launched its fifth season with a story of violence and death at the Betsy Ross House—from 1980. (Ghost Hunters’ current season exploits the 20th century horrors of overcrowded conditions at the closed Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County.) Back in town, the City Tavern gets into the act with tales of a former waiter who died in a bar fight. Fort Mifflin brags of battlefield ghost Elizabeth Pratt, aka “The Screaming Woman.” There’s “The Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour.” Germantown has its “Ghosts of the Great Road.”

As the best in its class, Eastern State gets to charge as much as $30 per ticket, half of which goes to their bottom line. Then there’s a cut of parking sales and the “Fright and a Bite” dinner packages with nearby restaurants. Souvenirs stocked at the “nighttime haunted house store” include “Terror Behind the Walls” tee-shirts, shot glasses and boxer shorts (black only). Visitors can buy plush, miniature versions of “Frank the Gargoyle,” or the latest edition of Haunted Attraction Magazine, “the premier publication of the dark amusement industry.”

In 2009, according to documents filed with the IRS, Eastern State collected nearly $1.4 million from the fundraising event called Halloween. Where does that money go? A fire suppression system, stabilization of cellblocks, a tower cam. It’s no trick. Year after year, the bulk of Eastern State’s budget comes from Halloween treats.

What’s terrifying is that Eastern State has become deeply addicted to this funding scenario. And it summons up another frightening question: What is the site’s responsibility to the thousands of visitors lined up for a not-so-cheap thrill? It seems that during the Halloween fright-fest, Eastern State’s mission goes on hiatus, at least the part of it that claims to explain and interpret a “complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed.” These issues, their mission statement adds, are “of central importance to our nation.” Even in October.


Short Shrift for the Long Room at Independence Hall

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The Long Room, Second Floor at Independence Hall, January 8, 1924. Warren A. McCullough, Photographer.

Charles Willson Peale knew an opportunity when he saw it. Two centuries later, what do we see?

In 1802, the 100-foot “Long Room” at the State House (aka Independence Hall) became available when the Pennsylvania’s legislature left for Lancaster. The acquisitive and talented Charles Willson Peale had installed his museum (and his family) in the adjacent Philosophical Hall eight years before. Now, his expanded collections had that space bursting at the seams. The spacious Long Room beckoned. Peale couldn’t imagine a better place for the United States to open its first “great national museum.”

Peale negotiated a deal and soon filled the State House with everything American, and then some. Opposite the windows in the Long Room, he stacked four rows of cases with more than 700 American birds. Peale and his artist sons painted the inside of each case with backgrounds to replicate their natural habitats and arranged them according to the Linnaean system. Above, Peale installed two rows of a newer, man-made order: America’s “Illustrious Personages painted from life” by Peale and son Rembrandt. The Peales did it all: art, taxidermy, presentation and interpretation.

Both “the unwise and the learned” got their money’s worth here. For the twenty-five cent admission fee visitors gained access to the Long Room, the Marine Room and the Quadruped Room, which displayed 90 mammals, including a stuffed grizzly bear and buffalo. To see Peale’s pièce de résistance, his mastodon, they’d pay an additional fifty cents. Peale excavated and presented the “Great American Incognitum” specifically to counter Old World claims that America didn’t have as robust a natural history as did Europe. He proved the Europeans wrong presenting a twelve-by-nineteen-foot mastodon—a fossilized skeleton large enough to serve a banquet underneath its rib cage.

Opposite the wall of birds and Founding Fathers were thousands of fossils, shells, rocks, minerals and insects. (See Titian Ramsay Peale’s watercolor from 1822.) For exhibits too small to see with the naked eye, the museum offered microscopes. To set the mood for enlightenment it provided live organ music. Visitors left with souvenir silhouettes cut by Moses Williams, Peale’s former slave. For years, Williams operated the newly-invented physiognotrace in the Long Room, cutting miniature profiles for anyone who wanted them. In 1803 alone, Peale claimed Williams made 8,800 of them.

Not everyone thought this the highest and best use of a place increasingly considered a “sacred shrine.” Social reformer Fanny Wright “was a little offended to find stuffed birds and beasts, and mammoth skeletons filling the place of senators and sages.” She suggested something “in better taste…a library, instead of a museum of natural curiosities, or a mausoleum of dead monsters.”

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Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822.

Peale’s famous painting from 1822, The Artist in His Museum, (illustrated and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts here), confidently responded to the naysayers, which included members of Congress who failed to see it for what it was: a serious and creative venture, a unique and uniquely American institution. Repeatedly, Peale’s pleas for support fell on deaf ears.

The museum remained open after Peale’s death in 1827, but the writing was on the wall: it would eventually fail. Peale’s collections would be dismantled and disbanded. The building, as Charlene Mires put it, would soon become “a workshop of memory for elite Philadelphians, who stripped away most material reminders of the building’s nineteenth-century history.”

Today, what Peale imagined and accomplished for his time in the Long Room is largely forgotten. And his success begs the question: Can a place be so overwhelmed by a rich but narrow interpretation of the past that it forever loses its ability to connect with the present? Is there any hope for new life in the Long Room? Peale saw its potential and acted on it. In the 19th-century, he created a patriotic place, but one infused with cultural value and educational, social and practical significance.

What can we imagine for the Long Room in the 21st century? Surely there’s untapped value for us, too, in this rich and resonant place.


Sensibility and Stuff: Collecting Photographs in a Purgatory of Zeros and Ones

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In front of the Savoy Theatre, Market Street, west of 12th Street, photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, December 7, 1935. allows registered visitors to tag and “collect” photographs and maps. In this essay, I consider the somewhat surreal notion of browsing online images and building a collection of “favorites.”

Meandering alone in the stacks of an old library or in the aisles of an archive is a daunting experience. Few other places on earth offer anything like this kind of weighty solitude. Repositories seem silent, but they hold voices. Like cemeteries, they’re about the past, but they’re not somber. Repositories offer opportunities to simulate in our imaginations unknown places and unimagined horizons. They’re hermetic, comfortable and exude confidence; after all, repositories have all the right answers. We just need to approach them with the right questions. But we’re in no great hurry to ask any questions, not yet, anyway. We’re still meandering, browsing, and searching for treasure we know exists.

This isn’t treasure we can get our hands on, and we’re not actually in the stacks. We’re in front of a computer monitor and the treasure we’re looking for is visual. We’re searching, week after week, month after month, examining thousands of images at

What are we looking for, exactly? We’re not looking for a picture of any particular place or time. What we want are pictures that speak with clarity and strength. They’ll be Philadelphia scenes, though not necessarily ones that were ever built. They’re likely to be black and white, but could have unexpected color. We’re bound to discover impressive photographers we’ve never heard of before, like the elusive Quinn or Wenzel J. Hess (above and here). We’re looking for a discovery that’s a shade off what we already know, something that’s satisfyingly different. And we’re doing this by immersing ourselves in the stuff of images as it comes to us in streams of pixels.

Is there really that much of a difference perusing historic images in servers versus stacks? Is there any real difference filing copies of images in manila folders versus tagging them as “favorites”? Can we actually possess an image that you can’t even touch? Could searching online be getting us closer to the past, or is it only a sly trick diverting us away from reality?

We grew up experiencing photographs as objects. We take their heft, texture and patina for granted. Before the online option, we had to deal with photographs and images in their conflated form. Now, photographs must be images but images do not necessarily need to be photographs. Separated from their “hosts,” images are no longer objects; they’ve forfeited their “thing-ness” to reside in a purgatory of zeros and ones, a place photographs never knew. Images travel the speed of light on chips, circuits and cables and even over the air. We can’t hold them, but we can want them, know and treasure them. Looking at these photographs is not about stuff; it’s about sensibility.


Ground Zero for Philadelphia Beer

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The survival of the Bergdoll Brewery at 29th near Parrish in Brewerytown
is interesting, but what remains from Philly beer’s earliest years?

Philadelphia’s been a beer town for a long time, long enough to have a destination equal to the story. We’re thirsty here for beer history, but there’s no must-see site. When we say “See the Bell; Crack a Beer” you know where the bell is. But where would you crack the beer, marinate in its present and contemplate its past?

Philadelphians are stuck for a beer site to venerate. Penn brewed way up the Delaware at the estate he called Pennsbury, but that’s too far. Robert Smith brewed at 20 South 5th Street, but that’s the same block as the Liberty Bell, and that’s too close. (Anyway, the Smith place is gone and the land is now part of Independence National Historical Park, where beer is generally frowned upon.) There’s a historical marker for “America’s First Lager” at Brown and North American Streets, but only so much brewing and aging could be done in the tightly-packed neighborhood of Northern Liberties. Brewerytown carries the right name but only a very few buildings remain from its 20 defunct breweries. There’s the former Bergdoll Brewery at 29th and Parrish (illustrated left and here). Bergdoll’s massive grain elevator stood nearby at 29th and Pennsylvania Avenue. But the grain elevator is no more and the brewery was converted into residences decades ago. (Read the story of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the family ne’er-do-well, in a blog post at Anyway, Brewerytown came late in the Philadelphia beer game. There’s no founding fizz in that history.

What do we have that really shows off Philadelphia’s venerable brewing history? What place can we call the Holy Grail of Philadelphia Beer? There’s got to be a site that tells the story of the formative years of fermentation and gets to the heart of Philly beer history.

There is. If we follow the trail of Charles Engel and Charles Wolf, the two men who started brewing that Northern Liberties lager, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a wooded area in Fairmount Park, not far from Kelly Drive at Fountain Green. Engel & Wolf were busily brewing at Fountain Green by 1849 and expanded their operation twice in the 1850s, carving five vaults from more than 50,000 cubic feet of rock to age their barrels at a constant 50 degrees. They printed a lavish colored lithograph advertisement and, we suspect, had a calligrapher embellish a copy with the resonant words in Fraktur script: “Die erste Lagerbier-Brauerei in Amerika” – “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.”

The first, but hardly the last. In 1870, the City of Philadelphia enlarged Fairmount Park and forced Engel & Wolf to move again. Not to be undone by this, the company, now Bergner & Engel Brewing Company built themselves a newer and even larger facility at Thompson and 32nd Streets. Meanwhile, the city demolished the brewery at Fountain Green, presumably filling in the aging caverns with debris from the site.

Sure, the Engel & Wolf brewery site is isolated and overgrown. That’s what remarkable about it. A site untouched for 140 years is a gift. Meanwhile, the Engel & Wolf brewery sits, waiting for archeologists, for interpreters, for us. It’s Philadelphia’s long-lost beer destination waiting to happen.

Engel and Wolf's Brewery and Vaults at Fountain Green. “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.” Rendering by Kirk Finkel based on a lithograph by Augustus Kollner, ca. 1855.


After All These Years: Political, Erotical and Mystical Claes Oldenburg

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin, 15th and Market Streets, in 1979

At first, the idea of a 51-foot paintbrush in front of an art school/museum seemed unoriginal, little more than a logo for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Had Claes Oldenburg, after more than thirty five years and in his fourth major work in Philadelphia, sold out?

We expected Oldenburg to be more the outsider here, more outrageous. We wanted the old Oldenburg, the one whose work spilled out originality, as he recently described to The Wall Street Journal. That sculptor once proposed replacing the Washington Monument with a giant pair of upended scissors. That artist imagined a giant toilet float for the Thames in London and a working windshield wiper threatening the Chicago waterfront.

Philadelphia's might-have-been screw monument. Illustration by Kirk Finkel based on Wikipedia Creative Commons photograph by Spikebrennan and "Cemetery in the Shape of a Colossal Screw," in “Oldenburg Draws Seven New Wonders of the World,” Horizon (Spring 1972).

Oldenburg, we always heard, originally proposed a screw monument for 15th and Market Streets, something he only imagined for São Paulo, Brazil. Could Rizzo-era Philadelphia, a city barely willing to accept a clothespin, allow a 45 foot-tall screw across from City Hall tower? Not on your life.

Someday, we may learn the full story about Philly’s first Oldenburg proposal, but we do know he had in the wings a less offensive idea: a clothespin. And in 1976 Philadelphia dedicated the first of Philadelphia’s major Oldenburg works: Clothespin, Split Button, Giant Three-Way Plug and now Paint Torch. These span Oldenburg’s entire, at times envelope-pushing, career.

In the early 1960s, in his New York studio, Oldenburg pushed the envelope plenty. His Pop Art manifesto staked out new artistic territory: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Would Oldenburg be willing and able to push the envelope on the streets of Philadelphia? What we seem to have across from City Hall and at the museum is something less than the “political-erotical-mystical” art we were promised.

But looks can be deceiving. As it turns out, Paint Torch floats above its site and gently commands Broad Street with scale, color and texture. It deploys a Pixar-tight caricature quality reminiscent of a helium parade balloon. Its form renders precious—in the best sense of the word—details of the Academy’s Furness façade, as well as those of City Hall a block to the south. By comparison, Clothespin is upright, uptight even. Clothespin’s rough, Cor-Ten steel surface does no favors for its promise of play, although the stainless steel spring does invite our imaginations. (Are they the arms of two figures in an embrace? Do they say “76”? Or is it merely a spring?)

In 2011, as in ’76, we find Oldenburg likes to play with our reading of these details. Looking at the top of Paint Torch, we see the brush pushing against something. There’s no canvas above Broad Street—only the outside world. What is this giant brushstroke? It looks like a tongue sticking out.

Could this be a lesson for art students to move beyond their teachers, as Oldenburg did? Could it be that Oldenburg, in the fullness of time, is getting back at Philadelphia? Or is it just an innocent dab of paint?

We are glad to see that Oldenburg has made something here that is, after all, “political-erotical-mystical.” The sculptor didn’t sell out. What he did, it seems, is to perfect the subtle, sometimes necessary art of tweaking one’s host.


Finding Philadelphia’s “Wow Factor”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Construction of the Sesquicentennial Bell at the base of Broad Street, 1926

Philly history is telling us something: We lost our sense of humor at the bottom of Broad Street.

Consider the new spine of lights proposed for a stretch of Broad, the 2 ½ miles from Spring Garden to Norris. These 29, 55-foot tall stalks of light are meant to restore North Broad Street’s long-absent “wow factor,” according to the folks at the Avenue of the Arts. But history suggests otherwise.

Want to find Philadelphia’s “wow factor?” Go back to Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in 1926. That was the real deal: a monumental, iconic claim of Philadelphia as the nation’s “Cradle of Liberty.” Sesquicentennial designers installed a giant sculpture right in the center of Broad Street on what’s now Marconi Plaza. Never before or since has the city seen something so bold, so apt—so much fun. Visible for miles, the giant Sesqui bell seemed to be in a kind of conversation with the 38-foot-tall statue of William Penn on City Hall. “Make no mistake,” these two sculptures seemed to be saying, “you’re in Philadelphia, and there’s a message to share. We’re saying it here and we’re making it come alive—with light.”

Long before the invention of the electric bulb, light had been the city’s best metaphor. Philadelphia was created around the central Quaker belief in an “inner light,” that divine spark in everyone so essential to the idea of equality and community. Later came the notion of the light of Liberty, something worthy of a new and independent nation.

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The Sesquicentennial Bell lit up the night, June 1, 1926.

How to make these metaphors come alive on the street? Cue the electric light. For more than a century, Broad Street, the founding city’s longest, widest public avenue, has been a light laboratory, a stage for meaningful illumination. At the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 lights adorned the temporary arch at Broad and Walnut. Lights draped from City Hall celebrated Philadelphia’s 225th birthday in 1908. Powerful spotlights permanently illuminated City Hall’s tower in 1916. And as recently as 2005, wild light play continued at City Hall. But nothing topped Broad Streets convergence of form, meaning and light more than when the gargantuan, sheet metal blow-up of the Liberty Bell was switched on in 1926, for the nation’s 150th birthday.

We don’t know what creative genius proposed this 80-foot sculpture covered with 26,000, 15-watt light bulbs. (We do know D. W. Atwater of the Westinghouse Lamp Company designed the illumination.) Switched on May 31, 1926, the Sesqui Bell predated Pop Art by a long shot: Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg weren’t even born until the late 1920s. Warhol painted his Campbell’s soup cans 36 years later; Oldenburg installed his giant Clothespin 50 years later. “I am for art that is flipped on and off with a switch;” wrote Oldenburg in his Pop Art manifesto, considered avant garde in 1961: “I am for the blinking arts, lighting up the night.”

We’re convinced: Philadelphians in the 1920s were way ahead of the curve. They knew how, where and with what to light up Broad Street. They were in touch with Philadelphia’s “wow factor.”


Philadelphia as Athens of America: More than Skin Deep

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The Merchants Exchange Building by William Strickland at Walnut and Dock Streets, ca. 1859.

Philadelphia’s façade of choice used to be one bedecked with columns—and the more the better. Greek and Roman orders ruled from the late 18th century clear through much of the 19th century. Whether you had a bank, a church, a town hall, a school or an asylum, classical features conveyed the “right” message as visitors passed your portal. Want to convey a sense of wealth? Go Greek. Need to speak the language of civic importance or educational authority? Say it with a stack of stone cylinders. Folks were even willing to forgive their pre-Christian origins as they prayed behind pagan porticoes.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe gets the credit for giving Quaker Philadelphia permission to lose the red brick and cloak everything in white marble. And he practiced what he preached in 1811 when he orated that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Latrobe’s own Philadelphia commissions: the Pump House in Center Square and the Bank of Pennsylvania were (literally and figuratively) classics.

None of Latrobe’s major works survive in Philadelphia, although you can see his marble magic in other places. Latrobe went on to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond before succumbing to Yellow Fever while on the job in New Orleans. (There’s an excellent hour-long documentary about Latrobe at PBS online.)

Where Latrobe left off his students and their students picked up and carried on. There’s William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange (illustrated here) and his Second Bank. There’s Thomas U. Walter’s Founder’s Hall at Girard College and many others, including the Mercantile Library, U.S. Naval Home, U.S. Mint, Jefferson Medical College, and the First Independent Presbyterian Church.

Philadelphia as the Athens of America was always more than skin deep. The very idea that Philadelphia would inherit Greek arts and ideals goes back to the very beginning, when Penn named his city in Greek. That Philadelphia would become the New World’s center for democracy, arts and learning might have been pushed aside for a few busy decades, but it wasn’t ever entirely forgotten.

In the early 1730s, founders of the Library Company of Philadelphia had written of Philadelphia as “the future of Athens in America.” A few years before that, Philadelphia poet George Webb, who David S. Shields calls “the first major prophet of the America of Athenaeums, civic temples, and ‘new Romans’,” wrote a poem that concludes with a few relevant lines:

Stretch’d on the Bank of Delaware’s rapid Stream
Stands Philadelphia, not unknown to Fame:
Here the tall Vessels safe at Anchor ride,
And Europe’s Wealth flows in with every Tide:

Who (if the wishing Muse inspir’d does sing)
Shall Liberal Arts to such Perfection bring,
Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d,
And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind.

Webb had plenty of company believing in this big idea for small Philadelphia. No, Latrobe didn’t invent the idea of Philadelphia as the rightful heir to ancient greatness. He only reminded Philadelphians what they had long known—and urged them to put the Greek out where everyone might actually see it.


A Challenge for Philadelphia: What Should Our 9/11 Memorial Look Like?

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Public memory fails us at Second Street, Walnut to Chestnut Streets.
Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, August 13, 1936.

America has another 9/11. September 11, 1777 also resonated with pain and sadness and was long remembered as a failure of freedom at the heart of the American cause. On that day, 234 years ago, a would-be nation embracing a vision of democracy forgot what the fight was all about.

But this story is remembered nowhere on the streets of Philadelphia. There’s no monument, no sculpture, no mural, no words in bronze to help us know and remember. This original, American 9/11 is now all but forgotten. It’s as if that day never happened.

Lucky for history, lucky for us, libraries and archives hold documents that tell the tale. The papers of Henry Drinker at Haverford College and the Brown Family at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and others that augment them are preserved and accessible. And thanks to Google books, a 300-page account of the event originally published in the 19th-century is also available. From these documents, as well as a more recent article, we can know and share what took place in Philadelphia on September 11, 1777.

What happened? Quaker Philadelphia became wartime Philadelphia. With the British advancing on land and by sea to occupy the city, loyalty and trust were no longer measured in shades of gray. By late August, Congress ordered those who were “notoriously disaffected…be apprehended disarmed and secured.” There was no ambiguity when it came to Philadelphia’s Tories. But what about the Quakers, who would neither participate nor contribute to the revolutionary effort?

Wartime leaders tended to agree with John Adams, who believed Philadelphia Quakers “love Money and Land better than Liberty of Religion.” Then reports of treasonous Quaker documents appeared – never mind that they were fabricated. Congress immediately recommended the arrest of Quakers who “evidenced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” In early September, American forces began to “seize and secure” some of the city’s most upstanding citizens, nearly all of whom were Quakers. Without charges, and with nothing more than a list of targets and orders from Congress, armed guards broke into civilian homes and rounded up 41 men. When elderly John Pemberton refused to go “they removed him bodily from the house and took him forcibly into custody.” He and others pleaded their “affection for America,” but to no avail. All the prisoners were taken to the Masonic Lodge on Lodge Alley just west of Second Street, north of Walnut Street.

There would be no charges, no hearings, no appeals. The prisoners, their families and others protested these actions as a “stretch of arbitrary power,” “illegal,” “unjust,” and “contrary to the Rights of Mankind.” All complaints fell on deaf ears. A guard threatened to shoot a visitor attempting to talk to a prisoner through a window. Day by day, tensions grew in the streets around Lodge Alley.

A few men suffering illnesses were released. Others were let go after signing an oath swearing allegiance to the Revolution. The rest remained locked up.

On September 11, the twenty remaining men were loaded onto wagons in the midst of a crowd one witness called a “deeply emotional.” Passions rose. Someone threatened a guard, promising to “thrust his hands down his throat and pull out his heart if he dared abuse a Prisoner.” Another witness wept as the loaded wagons sat for hours, attempting to wait out the crowd. When the citizen-prisoners finally trundled away in the early evening, African-American acquaintances of John Pemberton managed to grasp his outreached hand. By then, Philadelphians just lined the way in silent protest.

These citizen-prisoners, victims of this original 9/11, were held for more than six months, out of sight but hardly out of mind in Winchester, Virginia. Two, Thomas Gilpin and John Hunt, died there. After many protests and appeals the rest were returned and released in April 1778. No charges were ever filed.

Today, the Masonic Lodge is long gone. So is Lodge Alley. This episode is forgotten. Over time, the place lost its connection with memory.

Should the site of Philadelphia’s 9/11, the site of “one of the gravest violations of individual rights…during the War of Independence” NOT be marked? Of course it should.

The real question is, what should Philadelphia’s 9/11 memorial look like; what should it tell us? How best can we restore this lost episode to living public memory?