As many people know, the Ben Franklin Parkway has a treasure trove of great museums. And it is, probably, also well known that the Parkway Museum District is about to get a dramatic and prominent new addition when the Barnes Foundation moves its renowned art collection to a new museum at 20th & the Parkway. The museum will house the large, private art collection of the late Dr. Albert Barnes, when it moves from his former home in Lower Merion. The collection has roughly 9,000 pieces of artwork from all cultures and mediums. It is most known, however, for one of the largest collections of French Impressionist art in the world. The value of the collection is appraised at somewhere between $6 billion and $25 billion.
The history of the Barnes Foundation and its move to the Parkway is somewhat unique. Dr. Barnes collected the works in the early twentieth century and displayed much of it on the walls of his Lower Merion home. He decreed in his will that the artwork was to remain in his home “in perpetuity”. He died suddenly in 1951, and his home was converted into a museum shortly after that. The museum was located in a residential area, and so its hours of operation were very limited. Eventually, the museum’s endowment ran out and because of its limited hours of operation and lack of available parking, it had trouble raising money and was threatened with insolvency. So, early last decade, the directors of the Foundation decided in order to stay in business and keep the art from being auctioned off, they would move to the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to attract city tourists and have a much higher profile. They petitioned the courts to break with Dr. Barnes will, arguing that the alternative to moving would mean insolvency and the end of the Barnes Foundation and its mission. After years of litigation by certain members of the Foundation’s board and staff and Lower Merion residents, the courts allowed the move in 2004. Then, another controversy erupted over the site at 20th & the Parkway, where the city had decided to put the new museum and gallery. The site had been the location of the Youth Study Center, a detention center for non-violent juveniles. The YSC moved to East Falls temporarily while the old building was torn down. The city had plans to move the YSC to a permanent home on 48th Street in West Philadelphia, which was challenged by neighbors and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. An agreement was worked out by Council and Mayor John Street, in his last week in office in 2007, that included a big new community center next to the new YSC on 48th Street. This finally cleared the way for the new building that is currently under construction right now. That building began construction early last year and is expected to be finished by late this year.
The new building design, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, was unveiled in October of 2009. It is designed to resemble Dr. Barnes’s home in shape and massing, but will have a contemporary design and features that Dr. Barnes’s home could never have. It will be about 93,000 square feet (12,000 square feet will be gallery space), and two stories, with an entrance facing 21st Street and the Rodin Museum across the street. The building will be covered in Ramon limestone, with traditional looking wooden windows to mimic the light patterns of the original museum. It is designed to be a “gallery in a garden” and to be surrounded by several courtyards and the existing London plane trees that run along the Parkway. There will be a large courtyard on the corner of 20th Street and the Parkway, with a modern fountain, and an outdoor cafe on the north side of the building surrounded by a garden. These gardens resemble the gardens and arboretum that Dr. Barnes had around his home. The new gardens and courtyards are intended to encourage contemplation and provide some tranquility from busy city streets. There will, also, be parking on the north side (which I hope will be replaced with an underground garage and plaza when they have the money) and a bus loop on 20th Street.
The most striking feature of the new museum’s design is the glass pavilion on top that will cantilever over the 21st Street entrance. It will allow light into the front lobby, or court, and it will light up at night, creating a unique visual presence on the Parkway. The new museum will have features that the original didn’t, or couldn’t, have. It will have a 150 seat auditorium, classrooms, conservation and research rooms, and a 5,000 square foot special exhibitions gallery.
The new Barnes Foundation museum will complement a series of developments and renovations along that stretch of the Parkway. Next door, the Rodin Museum has been renovated and its grounds and courtyard are currently being renovated. Across 20th Street, the Central Library will soon break ground on a huge expansion on Callowhill Street and start a years long renovation program. East of the Library, the old Family Court building will soon be sold off to developers and likely converted into a hotel and condo development that may include a small museum of some kind. And still east of the Family Court building, the Church of Latter Day Saints will soon break ground on a grand Mormon Temple. This whole stretch of the Parkway is about to be enhanced with new and improved institutions and developments, as well as, several public space improvements along the 2100 and 2200 blocks and the parks surrounding Logan Circle (as I’ve previously mentioned in an earlier post). This all will make the Parkway one of the largest museum districts in the world, if it isn’t already, and will possibly be the largest concentration of fine art anywhere in the world. All this will be adjacent to important locations, such as the Comcast Center and the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, as well as, the proposed American Commerce Center, hovering over this area, someday soon. In fact, the Barnes Foundation, and the other improvements to the Parkway, make the AmeriCom Center and other major developments in the area more likely to occur, and will likely continue to raise property values in the area to Rittenhouse levels in coming years.
I have several renderings and pictures that I took of the construction, and you can check out the link to the Barnes website that I have in the first paragraph.