11 Things You Might Not Know About the Art Museum

Bullmastiffs, Princess Grace, a murderous mayor — there's a lot more to PMA than just art.

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It’s been an exciting week for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On Wednesday, the big “International Pop” exhibit opened, celebrating the bold, colorful works that, as our writer Sarah Jordan phrased it, put the line between high art and low art out of business. Then, on Thursday, the Museum announced a major bequest of 50 paintings from the estate of Luden’s cough drops heir Daniel W. Dietrich II that includes works by Edward Hopper, West Chester’s Horace Pippin and Eva Hesse, among many others. So it seems an auspicious time to examine the history of the Museum, which was founded just in time for the nation’s Centennial and endures as a site where everyone from school kids to scholars and hippies to hipsters comes to soak in the healing power of art.

  1. Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, erected for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, was intended as a permanent museum that would focus on applied arts and science and offer classes in drawing, modeling and design. Its permanent holdings were donated by the public as well as purchased. One early major donation came from Clara Jessup Moore, an investor in the perpetual-motion-hoax Keely Motor Company. Her New York Times obituary speculated that the death of its founder, Philly con man John Worrell Keely, broke her heart.
  2. Because Memorial Hall was considered too far from where most city residents resided, the city fathers in 1895 held a competition for the design of a new museum. It wasn’t until more than a decade later, in 1907, that the site was settled on: Fairmount, the rocky prominence where the city’s water works had been moved early in the 19th century. The final design was by two members of Horace Trumbauer’s architecture firm: Howell Lewis Shay and Julian Abele, the first black graduate of Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. Abele was a descendant of Absalom Jones, founder of the Free African Society.
  3. In 1903, the Museum established its Bureau of Identification — an Antiques Roadshow prototype that provided collectors with information on the authenticity of art objects, especially ceramics. Collectors from around the world brought items to the bureau to have them verified.
  4. The Museum was built where the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, originally called the Fairmount Parkway and modeled on the Champs-Elyseés, ended, largely due to über-wealthy streetcar magnate P.A.B. Widener, who promised to pay for the new museum himself if the city put it where he thought best. Construction complications at one point led to a plan to artificially extend the hill on the east side so the building and the Parkway would align properly. In the end, 1,300 buildings were razed for construction of the Parkway, at a cost of $35 million. After a long, ugly art battle, Widener instead became a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Widener’s son and grandson died in the sinking of the Titanic.
  5. Though the Museum’s design was finalized in 1917, construction was delayed by the outbreak of World War I until 1919, when Mayor Thomas B. Smith, who was once indicted in the murder of a policeman, laid the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony. It was opened to the public in 1928. Once known derisively as the “Great Greek Garage,” the building was modeled on the Parthenon. Its seven pediments were to be adorned with sculpture groups, but only the western one was completed, with terra-cotta figures by C. Paul Jennewein of Greek gods and mythological beings.
  6. The building is topped with bronze griffins, and from the 1970s until 2014, that mythological creature was part of the Museum’s logo. It was then replaced by the word “Art” written really big. Eh, we liked the griffin.
  7. Eli Kirk Price II, vice president of the Fairmount Park Commission at the time the Museum was constructed (and the guy who bought the Billy statue for Rittenhouse Square), convinced the commission to build the Museum’s two outer pavilions first, so the city would be embarrassed into providing enough money to complete the connecting central pavilion. (Plus ça change … ) The total cost of the project was $17 million. Attendance in the first year topped one million visitors.
  8. The Museum’s holdings include 227,000 objects; those from the Western world date back to the first century CE and those from Asia to the third millennium BCE. The Museum doesn’t contain any galleries of Egyptian, Roman or Pre-Columbian art because of a longstanding agreement with the University of Pennsylvania by which the Penn Museum gave PMA its collection of Chinese porcelain and in return got most of PMA’s Egyptian, Roman and Pre-Columbian works.
  9. In 1956, the last remaining objects at Memorial Hall were moved to the current Museum, and the keys to Memorial Hall were officially presented to the Fairmount Park commissioners. That same year, Princess Grace’s wedding gown, which was designed by Academy Award-winning costume designer Helen Rose and made by the wardrobe department of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio, was exhibited.
  10. In the original Rocky movie, Sylvester Stallone planned to have the boxer carry his bullmastiff, Butkus, up the 72 iconic stairs, but the dog was too heavy, and the scene was rewritten. Inquirer journalists Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish spent a year interviewing visitors to the stairs for their 2006 book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps.
  11. In 2006, the Museum announced the selection of starchitect Frank Gehry to design a major underground expansion to house its collections of Asian art and contemporary sculpture as well as special exhibitions. One of Gehry’s conceptions cut through the Rocky Steps for a “city window” for a view of the Parkway—an idea that proved highly controversial. The project is proceeding in phases and is slated for completion in 2018, the centennial year of the current site.