What’s Wrong With Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile”?

Carroll, Grisdale and Van Allen’s Youth Study Center, 20th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with Waldemar Raemisch’s “The Great Mother.” Dick Gouldey, Photographer, 1984.

The Renaissance masters understood cities; they knew how to imagine them.

Important cities must have wide streets. “Broad Streets are more lightsome,” declared Andrea Palladio in 1570. When “one side of such a Street is…less eclipsed by the opposite Side, the Beauty of Churches and Palaces must needs be seen to the Greater advantage in large than narrow Streets, whence the mind is more agreeably entertained and the city more adorned.”

William Penn borrowed both the idea and the name for his own Broad Street.

The masters knew that cities thrive when their wide streets host a variety of public activity. Leone Battista Alberti advised that  “public ways, which may not improperly be called High Streets” should be “designed for some certain Purpose, especially a public one; as for instance those which lead to some Temple or the Course for the Races; or to a Place for Justice.”

Again, Penn borrowed the idea and the name for Philadelphia’s High Street, home to the city’s markets. Eventually, this led to an outright name change from High Street to Market Street.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Market and Broad evolved as the city’s public armature, an accommodating home for the public institutions that literally made the city. From market stall to City Hall, all kinds of civic buildings found their places along Philadelphia’s public avenues: churches, clubs, theaters, opera houses, hotels, hospitals, horticultural halls, even opulent mansions and iconic eateries. If a place was meant to contribute to Philadelphia’s public life, it had a place along the city’s civic avenues.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Philadelphians became enamored with the automobile and an urban-planning movement that called itself “The City Beautiful” and decided they had outgrown their older public avenues. Planning a mile-long, multi-lane, landscaped highway connecting City Hall to Fairmount Park, they would build a grand, new public avenue to redefine and update the city.

This 20th century version of the Renaissance idea for a “lightsome,” “public way” would serve an expanded Philadelphia. Along it, all types of institutions would enhance and enrich public purpose. Anchored in the original Penn plan with Philadelphia City Hall, planners envisioned the Parkway cutting across the city’s northwest quadrant to accommodate schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, cathedrals, courthouses, administrative headquarters for schools and agencies, and even a hall for conventions. If it served the public, it belonged on the Parkway.

Until now. In recent years, civic institutions along the Parkway have been made out to be interlopers, placeholders for real estate to support a rising tourist economy. At the start of the 21st century, we’re witnessing a tilt away from the Renaissance and City Beautiful principles that shaped the city and in favor of a newer, less complex notion: “The Museum Mile.”

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, D. Alonzo Biggard, Photographer, May 5, 1936.

Philadelphia leaders began using the term “Museum Mile” with frequency in 2005 and 2006, soon after the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened a new annex in the Fidelity Mutual Building. Of course, there already was the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences and would-have-been but since failed Calder Museum. And at Logan Square, the cultural footprint of the Free Library of Philadelphia, then planning an expansion, was joined by Moore College of Art. The latest installment in this constellation, the Barnes Foundation, replaced the 1952 building of the Youth Study Center by architects Carroll, Grisdale and Van Allen.

The “Museum Mile” is an ambitious idea, but it’s a two-dimensional vision, considering that museums, no how well-stocked or well-appointed, do not a great city make. “No one spends two hours in a museum, then goes down the street to spend two hours in another,” urbanist Witold Rybczynski recently told the Inquirer. “I don’t think it’s a great idea to have three museums lined up in a row or three stadiums next to each other—there’s no synergy in that.”

Albert Barnes would have heartily agreed. His institution—and he went out of his way to avoid calling it a museum—would “replace the sentimentalism, the antiquarianism” and the “emotional irrelevancy” he found in museums. Appreciation of art, Barnes wrote, “can no more be absorbed by aimless wandering in galleries than can surgery be learned by casual visits to a hospital.”

Of course, visits to a hospital or other civic institution for that matter, are increasingly impossible along the Parkway, Philadelphia’s new Art Theme Park.

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One Comment

  1. Bob Skiba
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    What’s wrong with Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile?” Have you ever tried to walk the length of the Parkway from City Hall to the Art Museum? You’d know. What should be a stroll down a beautiful street is a deadly cat and mouse game played in a tree-lined no-man’s land against astonishingly short traffic lights and impatient traffic. Until that is fixed, the Parkway will only be a multi-laned highway for cars to race in and out of town.

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