Though we tend to visit museums for the artful gems they hold, sometimes the buildings that house them are also deserving of our attention. In Philadelphia you’ll find a host of world-class museums that also happen to be spectacular examples of important architectural styles.
In this tour we highlight several such examples that are situated along and just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Designed by Paul Cret and Jacques Greber as the city’s own Champs Elysses, the mile-long avenue complete with circles, fountains and picturesque landscaping that is the Parkway is itself an architectural masterpiece. With such striking architecture, these museums are all worth a visit—even if you never step inside.add to My Experience
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Opened in 1928 and resembling a Greek temple, the Julian Abele-designed Philadelphia Museum of Art is made of pure Minnesota dolomite and covers 10 acres. Of particular note are the polychrome terracotta sculptures in the tympanum of the pediment on the North Wing, which were designed by sculptor C. Paul Jennewein. At the time, the building was the first in 2,000 years to adapt polychromy in this manner. The Neo-classical building is considered one of the showpieces of the early 20th-century “city beautiful” movement in architecture. A renovation is currently in progress, which includes the addition of a new wing designed by award-winning architect Frank O. Gehry.
Philadelphia, PA 19130
In the early aughts the Philadelphia Museum of Art envisioned a new life for the headquarters of the landmark Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, which faces the museum across Kelly Drive. Glukman Mayner Architects was commissioned to recast the elaborate Art Deco building, with its rows of windows, polychrome facades with insurance symbols and cathedral-like gilded entrance doors, as a modern showplace for the museum’s most edgy collections and an oasis for sheer enjoyment of the visual arts. Opened in September 2007, the art annex includes six new galleries, a public resource library, a café overlooking a landscaped terrace, a bookstore and numerous public spaces for contemplating art.
Art and nature peacefully co-exist in this museum and garden designed by French Neo-classical architects Paul Cret and Jacques Greber, the same architectural duo who created the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Opened in 1929 and featuring a Neo-classical Beaux-Arts building and formal gardens, the museum is home to the largest collection of Rodin’s work outside of Paris. From 2008 to early 2012 the museum underwent a rejuvenation of the building and grounds. Philadelphia-based OLIN partners led the revamp, which was designed to enhance and amplify the original architects’ vision and draw particular attention to the connection between the museum’s entrance and the Parkway.
(Broad and Cherry Streets)
Philadelphia, PA 19102
The Frank Furness and George Hewitt-designed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts building is an architectural wonder inside and out. Outside, it is one of the finest surviving examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in America, complete with red and black brick patterning and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists of the past. Inside, a low-vaulted entrance leads to an ornate Grand Stairhall with brightly-colored tiled floors and walls, Gothic arches that carry gold rosette-studded walls, bronze and mahogany banisters that wind up to the gallery level and a vaulted ceiling painted to resemble a shimmering, star-filled sky. In 2011, PAFA opened Lenfest Plaza, a new public space designed by Philadelphia-based OLIN partners.
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien as a “gallery in a garden, a garden in a gallery”, The Barnes Foundation Philadelphia Campus is the Parkway’s newest architectural gem. The two-story, 93,000-square-foot building features a textured grey-and-gold Ramon limestone exterior with a glass canopy that glows at night and a rectangular fountain set among walkways and seating. The four-and-a-half acre landscaped grounds reference the Barnes Arboretum in Merion. In addition, the building boasts a number of sustainable features, including a green roof and permeable surfaces that allow for rain and grey water re-use.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
John T. Windrim designed The Franklin Institute, which moved to this location in 1934 more than 100 years after it began. The Classical Beaux-Arts science museum’s entrance is crafted of buff Indiana limestone, with the base and exterior steps made out of Milford pink granite. Just inside, you’ll find another massive Windrim-designed structure: Benjamin Franklin National Memorial Hall, home to James Earle Fraser’s 20-foot white marble sculpture of a seated Franklin. Built to mimic Rome’s Parthenon, the all-white Hall is 82-feet-high and boasts a self-supporting domed marble ceiling.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Wilson Eyre’s ambitious 1896 design for the Free Museum of Science and Art was based on Northern Italian Renaissance architecture and featured three central rotundas and parks with fountains and pools. While Eyre never fully realized his elaborate plan, what is now the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is housed in his original Beaux Arts’ structure. Over the years various structures have been grafted onto the original, including The Harrison Rotunda, an ancient Roman-style all-masonry rotunda with 90-foot walls and a self-supporting dome, and most recently, the Mainwaring Wing, an Atkin, Olshin, Lawson-Bell and Associates’-designed storage facility that both echoes, and is a post-Modern interpretation of, the original master plan.
Philadelphia, PA 19107
City Hall is the largest municipal building in the United States, containing over 14.5 acres of floor space. It is an architectural treasure inside and out.