Behold The Artist In His Museum

Some people flock to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa; I made a beeline for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to behold The Artist in His Museum.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine ArtsCharles Willson Peale’s 1822 self-portrait is considered to be his masterpiece, and I sat before it for a good long time, taking it in in all its glory. Peale lifts a curtain to reveal a glimpse of the Long Room of his museum of art and natural science in Philadelphia. A row of portraits border the walls, which are filled with four rows of cases containing mounted birds displayed before painted backgrounds. A portion of a skeleton is visible behind Peale’s right shoulder, while an artist’s palette and brushes rest on a table before it. Prehistoric bones are prominently placed in the right foreground. A wild turkey is at his feet, pecking at a box of taxidermy tools.

Peale’s gesture and stance are so graceful and elegant, the curve of his calf just like the S-curve that the painter William Hogarth referred to as his “line of beauty.” This balding man may not look like much, but to me, he’s a hero — an accomplished artist and naturalist and a clever entrepreneur who established one of the first museums.

William Bartram, with a specimen of Jasminium officinale tucked into his coat

Peale’s portrait of William Bartram, depicted with a specimen of Jasminium officinale

Born in Maryland in 1741, Peale discovered a talent for painting, made his way to Philadelphia in 1775 and started securing commissions to paint life-size, bust-length portraits of notable Revolutionary War-era figures like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and William Bartram, a Philadelphia botanist who was a close friend of Peale’s. Peale first displayed the portraits in an addition to his home at Third and Lombard Streets, making the “Gallery of Great Men” the first public picture gallery in the country. By providing biographies of the subject of each portrait in an accompanying catalogue, Peale hoped that visitors to his museum would reflect upon their accomplishments and develop an appreciation for qualities like self-sacrifice and morality that would represent the new United States.

Another room in the gallery housed a show during which pictures of dawn, rainstorms and a Revolutionary War naval battle moved and changed color through lighting, music, dramatic readings and special effects, such as wooden waves that moved mechanically in the foreground, with small pipes inside them sending up sprays of water. To celebrate George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in October 1781, Peale replaced two of his home’s windows with transparent pictures of patriotic subjects that were painted on window-shade cloth been primed with wax and turpentine and lit from behind with candles for a striking effect.

As Peale’s portraits increased, so did his esteem. In 1783, he was hired by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to adorn an arch built on Market Street to commemorate the end of the war with paintings depicting George Washington, symbols of France, and tributes to the Pennsylvania militia. He also developed a way to illuminate the arch and to trigger a fireworks display.

In 1794, Peale moved his museum and his family to the American Philosophical Society’s hall at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, relying on neighborhood boys to carry the smaller items as in a parade.American Philosophical Society There, he worked on increasing his collection of natural history specimens, minerals, Native American Indian artifacts, fossils and other curiosities, arranging his collection according to the classification system developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He also acquired a live menagerie that included grizzly bears, a monkey and an American bald eagle. A pair of golden pheasants came from George Washington, a French angora cat was donated by Benjamin Franklin, and specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition were contributed by Thomas Jefferson. Peale’s museum hosted natural history lectures, organ recitals, silhouette-cutting and other special programs in the evenings, in keeping with his goal “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” in the new American republic through his “world in miniature.”

In 1802, Peale moved his portraits to a bigger space – the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House. There, he and his sons posed the specimens before painted backdrops that simulated the habitat of each specimen — a new technique that eventually would become known as the habitat diorama. By 1811, the museum included rooms specifically for quadrupeds, marine animals and the reassembled, almost complete skeleton of a mastodon excavated in the Hudson River valley of New York under Peale’s direction in 1801.

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale’s self-portrait

Peale’s painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, portrays the archaeological site, complete with a contraption Peale had devised to drain water from the excavation pit, which used a rotating chain of buckets that hung over the pit from a wooden tripod, powered by men walking inside a millwheel. The painting also depicts nearly 20 of Peale’s family, including his sons Titian, Linnaeus and Franklin, and his friend, ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The bones collected from the site was shipped home and the remains were reconstructed, with Peale’s son Rembrandt carving wooden duplicates of missing bones. The Peales’ drawings and reconstruction of the mastodon skeleton had great scientific importance, leading the American mammoth to be formally declared as an extinct species.

The museum remained at the Pennsylvania State House until Peale’s death in 1827, and then was relocated a few more times until the Peale family sold the collection to Phineas T. Barnum, among others, in 1849. Peale’s famous portrait collection was auctioned in 1854 and was distributed to several different owners, including the City of Philadelphia, which purchased a group to display in Independence Hall. Today, over 150 of those portraits are on view at the Second Bank of United States.

Peale was also one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, established in 1805 to promote the cultivation of the fine arts in the United States through educating artists using copies of masterworks in sculpture and painting…

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

as well as collecting and exhibiting art for the general public. Today, the oldest art museum and art school in America is known for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, including works by William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and Edmund Tarbell.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Noted artists Thomas Eakins and Cecilia Beaux — both Philadelphia natives — taught at PAFA. Beaux introduced Impressionist painting techniques in her classes, while Eakins emphasized the study of human anatomy by working with live models. Its students include Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia native Maxfield Parrish.

The Dream Garden, a glass mosaic mural designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1916 for the lobby of the Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, at Sixth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia.

The Dream Garden, a glass mosaic mural designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1916 for the lobby of the Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, at Sixth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia.

PAFA’s current home is an 1876 Victorian Gothic building designed by the Philadelphia firm of Frank Furness and George Hewitt. Its red-and-black patterned brick exterior is adorned with floral motifs carved in stone and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists of the past.Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Inside, a deep-blue vaulted ceiling patterned with silver stars, red-veined marble floors, Moorish arcades, gilded accents and purple walls with a gold floral pattern make the interior resemble brilliant jewels. William Wetmore Story’s Semiramis, a marble statue of the Babylonian queen that Story carved while living in Rome in 1873, presides at the top of the staircase, just as it did in its photograph on the cover of the American Automobile Association’s Pennsylvania tour book I took with me to Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

For more on Charles Willson Peale, read The Ingenious Mr. Peale: Painter, Patriot, and Man of Science, by Janet Wilson; Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art, by Charles Coleman Sellers; New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale: A 250th Anniversary Celebration, edited by Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward; Independence Hall in American Memory, by Charlene Mires; and History of the Portrait Collection, Independence National Historical Park, by Doris Devine Fanelli and a catalog of the collection edited by Karie Diethorn. For more on Peale’s exhumation of the mastodon at Barber Farm in New York, click here to see the National Register of Historic Places registration form the site.

For more on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, click here for a list of PAFA-curated resources on the school, the museum, and its building.


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Door Hinges Are As Important As Renoir Paintings

What are you doing this weekend?”

This familiar Friday-afternoon exchange has contributed to the heft of my “Places To Go” folder. One of the most intriguing additions has been the Barnes Foundation, a museum that displays its collection in unique “ensembles,” was the subject of a documentary called The Art of the Steal, and has a shop where you can curate your own collection of exclusive bronze and silver charms inspired by its decorative ironwork holdings. It moved to the top of the pile when my plans took me to Philadelphia.

Boarding the PHLASH for the short bus ride to Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street, I felt like a Fancy Brigade Mummer in Philadelphia’s traditional New Year’s Day parade, ready to break into Broadway-style song and dance because I was finally going to see this place. I wasn’t disappointed.

Barnes FoundationEnveloped by a series of gardens, pale gray stone walls, reflecting pools and plazas, the building is the new home of the collection of Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia medical doctor who made his fortune by developing and producing Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound that was used to prevent eye infections and blindness in newborns before antibiotics were available. Between 1912 and 1951, Barnes assembled one of the world’s most important holdings of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, with works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Maurice Prendergast and more.

I turned left down a crushed gravel path bordered by an allée of red maple trees and a narrow pool of still water. Just outside the building’s entrance, I stooped down to read a 1925 quote from Barnes etched along its border: “The most interesting thing in the world to me has always been a free, spontaneous expression of human nature, whether in a thought, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a statue, or an act of everyday life that shows the qualities of mind, heart and soul which, in my opinion, are the indispensables in any work of art.”

Crossing the threshold, I had the feeling that I had arrived at a very special, slow-paced place designed to encourage art appreciation. I turned left into the main lobby, walked straight ahead to a spacious, light-filled court, and entered the first of 23 rooms displaying items from the collection. My labyrinthine journey through this handsome building had begun.

Each gallery in the museum has white oak floors and golden burlap-covered walls, but there are no labels identifying the works on display. Barnes was so confident that people could appreciate art without having to rely on knowing the identity of the artist that he didn’t see a need for them.Barnes Foundation

As I moved slowly through these rooms, pausing often to appreciate my surroundings, it was obvious that Barnes loved art. He read voraciously, taking books by art historian Bernard Berenson and art critic Clive Bell with him to the Louvre and the National Gallery to try to learn about art, to determine what makes a good painting, and to understand why certain paintings appealed to him. He also sought the advice of his high school classmate, painter William Glackens, who encouraged Barnes’s appreciation of modern painting by taking him to galleries and buying paintings in Paris on his behalf. In later years, Barnes began collecting decorative and industrial arts, including Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, African and Native American art, Old Master paintings, and decorative ironwork.

Barnes shared his growing collection with his handful of employees, studying and discussing it with them for two hours each day. In 1922, he established a foundation to promote the appreciation of the fine arts. When his collection became too large to
maintain at his Merion, Pennsylvania home, he commissioned the building of a gallery next door.

Decades after Barnes’ death in 1951, a controversial legal battle ensued in which the foundation’s board of trustees sought to move the collection from Merion to Philadelphia. The new museum, which opened in 2012, maintains the original sequence of the rooms and the installation of the collection, precisely as it was in Merion. Today, the original museum is home to an arboretum that contains more than 2,500 species and varieties of trees and woody plants.

How Barnes’s collection is presented is as striking as what it contains. Relying on the artistic principles of light, line, color and space, Barnes combined paintings, metalwork, sculpture and decorative arts of different periods, cultures, styles and genres to reveal similar forms. To him, a door hinge was just as significant as a Picasso painting. He grouped them in symmetrical wall arrangements that he called “ensembles,” constantly rearranging them as he acquired new items until he got them just right. Barnes left no written explanations about his groupings, so there is no definitive answer to their meaning, but there are plenty of opportunities to discover the witty, clever and thoughtful ways he brought out the relationships between works of art. The ensembles on view today are those that were in place when Barnes died.

For example, on the south wall of Room 6, Barnes highlighted how the coral hues of a Paul Gaugin painting resonate with similar colors in the two Prendergast landscapes flanking it. The pink details and wavy lines of a Pennsylvania Dutch chest beneath the paintings, together with a gleaming pair of metal candlesticks and a teapot sitting on top of it, pick up the shimmery representation of painted waves. Door hinges at the top left and top right of the wall echo the curvaceous shapes of female figures in a nearby Renoir painting; the wide seats of 18th-century Windsor armchairs beneath them look like they were placed there to accommodate their voluptuousness.

Works by Renoir and Cezanne on the south wall of Room 8 are hung in V-shaped formations that mimic their pyramids of figures. The undulating carved waves on the front of a dresser and the rounded forms of pear-shaped candlestands and a redware pot below the paintings equal the curves of female figures depicted in the paintings. Their earthy red tones find the perfect complement in the similar hues of a painting by Renoir. On the south wall of Room 9, a painted 18th-century Pennsylvania Dutch chest decorated with tulips and a galloping horse is placed under Renoir’s Girl with a Jump Rope to contrast the vivid blue of the girl’s dress, together with a horse-shaped cookie cutter and tulip-shaped hinges on the opposite wall.

The Barnes Museum’s next-door neighbor is the Rodin Museum, an important collection of the work of Auguste Rodin collected by Jules Mastbaum of Philadelphia.Rodin Museum The Meudon Gate, at the entrance to the museum, is a replica of the façade of a 17th-century chateau that Rodin reassembled on his property at Meudon, outside Paris. The structure includes bronze casts of Rodin’s Adam and The Shade; The Thinker stands before it, as it does at his gravesite. No admission is required to enjoy the museum’s garden, which includes casts of other Rodin sculptures, such as The Three Shades and The Burghers of Calais.

The Barnes Foundation partnered with the Columbus Museum of Art to produce Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, an exhibition exploring how World War I caused Pablo Picasso to reimagine Cubism and return to classicism. On view in Columbus through September 11, the exhibition includes four costumes Picasso designed for Parade, a revolutionary ballet featuring a story by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie and the choreography of Léonide Massine that was performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1917; snapshots of Picasso and his friends that Cocteau took on August 12, 1916 at a Parisian café; and works by Picasso and his contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Diego Rivera. Pablo Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics, is a complementary exhibition that is also on view.

Special Picasso-related events offered by the museum have included presentations on the history of the Great War, its fashion and how it led to the Jazz Age; dinner paired with anecdotes about Picasso; and more. “Picasso and the Classical, Again” is the title of a lecture about Picasso’s interest in Classical art that will be given on September 8 at 6:00 PM. For more on the exhibit, read Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, edited by Mariah Keller, with essays by Simonetta Fraquelli, Kenneth E. Silver, Elizabeth Cowling and Dominique H. Vasseur. A Day with Picasso, by Billy Klüver, presents the Cocteau photographs, along with a map of the locations. The exhibition was the subject of “The Influence of War on Art and Artists,” the June 6, 2016 edition of All Sides with Ann Fisher on WOSU-FM. Click here to listen to a recording of the program.

For more information about Albert Barnes and his foundation, read Barnes’s book, The Art in Painting; “How To Judge a Painting,” an article that Barnes wrote for the April 1915 issue of Arts and DecoratioBarnes Foundationn; “Profiles: De Medici in Merion,” an article by A.H. Shaw that was published in the September 22, 1928 issue of The New Yorker; Masterworks of the Barnes, by Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy; The Devil and Dr. Barnes: Portrait of An American Art Collector, by Howard Greenfeld; Art Held Hostage: The Story of the Barnes Collection, by John Anderson; The House of Barnes: The Man, The Collection, The Controversy, by Neil L. Rudenstine; The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary about the Barnes Foundation; and The Architecture of the Barnes Foundation: Gallery in a Garden, Garden in a Gallery, by Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Kenneth Frampton. To discover more about the ensembles and see what they look like, click here.

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How Many Famous Franks Can You Find In The City of Murals?

1960s Philadelphia was a place beleaguered by gangs who expressed themselves through graffiti. Following Chicago’s lead, mural artists ignited change by painting giant-sized images on the sides of public buildings in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that attracted attention from passers-by.

Mural walking tourSince 1984, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has created thousands of public murals in the city, securing permission from owners of highly visible properties to paint unique images on their walls and engaging communities in the process of making outdoor public art. Each year, it produces 50 to 100 new murals, restores existing ones, and leads programs that promote art education, restorative justice and health and wellness.

Walking tours provide details about the murals, the artistic process, the artists, and the history of the diverse communities that serve as the backdrop for this unique art form. Like the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall did during their 2007 visit to Philadelphia, I spent an afternoon seeing some of these unique murals.

My guide, Carol Weidler, explained that the idea for a mural usually comes from a community or a corporate sponsor that provides funding. Sometimes, the Mural Arts Program will notice a good wall in a neighborhood and seek out funding to put a mural there; on other occasions, a public representative will request a mural in a particular district.

First, the wall is chosen for the project. The ideal wall must be relatively flat and smooth, free from major defects, and visible from a distance to passers-by. Then, community members discuss possible themes and designs with the artist. Once a theme is decided, the artist develops an initial design for group feedback. The artist then incorporates their input and prepares more sketches until a final design is approved.

To prepare the wall for painting, loose paint is removed, holes are filled, and a coat of waterproofing is applied to protect the future mural from moisture. Some mural artists transfer their design to the wall using the grid method, in which the artist superimposes a series of horizontal and vertical lines over the final sketch, breaking down the composition into a pattern of small squares. The blank wall also is gridded into proportional squares. The artist then reproduces the content of each square on the sketch in the corresponding square on the wall until the entire work has been recreated on a larger scale. Others prefer to paint the mural in their studio, projecting images onto a synthetic fabric like parachute cloth, similar to sheets of fabric softener; then, they adhere the painted fabric panels to the wall with acrylic gel. The finished mural is coated with a clear acrylic sealant to protect it from the elements.

Carol introduced me and my fellow tour-goers to 14 different Center City murals. Philadelphia Muses, painted in 2000 on a building on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets, represents some of the city’s better-known performers, writers and artists. Each contemporary interpretation of the ancient goddesses of the arts and sciences holds a sphere, often recognized as the perfect form.

Mural walking tour

Finding Home, the first textile mural, was woven and painted at a house for the homeless next to St. John the Evangelist Catholic church.

Mural walking tour

The Father of Modern Philadelphia pays tribute to Edmund Bacon, father of the actor Kevin Bacon and the former executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.Mural walking tour

Women in Progress, a mural on the wall of the New Century Guild, founded in 1882 to improve the educational, economic, and social status of women and girls — features dozens of prominent 20th-century women, as well as one man – the policeman who patrolled this district and talked to the artist as she was working.

Mural walking tour

Inspired by Perugia, Italy and the produce of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Taste of Summer adorns the wall of a restaurant owned by Chef Marc Vetri.Mural walking tour

To give a needed facelift to a neighborhood bar known as Dirty Franks, this mural features nothing but famous men with different variations on the name “Frank,” such as Frank Zappa, Frankenstein, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pope Francis, Frank Sinatra and Frank Lloyd Wright.Mural walking tour

For more on Philadelphia’s murals, read A Love Letter For You: Brick Valentines on the Philly Skyline, by Steve Powers; Mural Arts Philadelphia @30, edited by Jane Golden and David Updike; Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, by Jane Golden, Robin Rice, and Monica Yant Kinney; and More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, by Jane Golden, Robin Rice and Natalie Pompilio. Click here for information on the Mural Arts Program and its walking tours.


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Meet At The Eagle To Hear A Grand Organ Recital

He’s hefty, haWanamaker'sils from Frankfort, Germany, and has 5,000 feathers.

After flying in from being on view in the German arts and crafts exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, this 2,500-pound bronze eagle landed in the Grand Court of Wanamaker’s department store in 1911. For decades, Philadelphians made plans to meet their friends at the eagle for shopping and lunch at the Crystal Tea Room.

Today, the department store at the corner of 13th and Market Streets in Central City Philadelphia is known as Macy’s, but the eagle still stands on his granite perch amid visitors who come to the store to see and hear its legendary organ during daily 45-minute recitals.

The eagle and the organ are two of the ways John Wanamaker became a pioneer of the retail industry. In 1861, the native Philadelphian opened a men’s clothing store known as Oak Hall, running full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines for ready-to-wear clothing that the store’s tailors could alter for a perfect fit. He expanded his business by opening a dry goods store called The New Establishment in 1874. In the coming years, he increased his product offerings to include china, furniture, carpets, sporting goods, art, books, pianos and more.

John Wanamaker statue, Philadelphia City Hall

John Wanamaker statue, Philadelphia City Hall

By the late 1880s, the store popularly known as the Grand Depot had seen its share of firsts for a department store — first to guarantee the quality of its merchandise in print; first to have a guaranteed refund policy; first to open a public restaurant; first to be lit by electricity; first to use a telephone; first to install pneumatic tubes to carry cash; first to install elevators; first to offer mail-order shopping; and first to offer a White Sale during the slow month of January to sell a surplus of bed linen. In later years, the store would feature The Budget Home, which contained two model five-room apartments that were furnished for a range of budgets. Designed like the mirrored shops of Paris, Wanamaker’s Little Gray Salons provided a secluded, comfortable place for women to select their apparel.

1881 chromolithograph ephemera from Wanamaker's

1881 chromolithograph ephemera from Wanamaker’s

The store’s logo was Wanamaker’s signature, and his final message to his associates is still displayed in the Grand Court.Wanamaker'sIn 1901, Wanamaker commissioned Daniel Burnham, architect of Marshall Field’s new department store in Chicago, to design a new building. The 12-story Roman Doric-style structure featured rusticated ashlar siding, a five-story Grand Court and a two-story arched-window arcade.


President William Howard Taft dedicated the Wanamaker Composite Store on December 30, 1911.Wanamaker'sWanamaker’s love of music prompted him to include a second-floor Egyptian Hall, which not only housed the store’s stock of instruments, but also was the site of public musical concerts. He also installed an organ that was designed and built for the same St. Louis Exposition of 1904. It was shipped from St. Louis to Philadelphia on 13 freight cars in 1909, and took two years to be installed in the store. It was first played on June 22, 1911, at the exact moment when King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

The Grand Court Organ has 28,500 pipes. The smallest is a quarter-inch long; the largest is made of Oregon sugar-pine that is three inches thick and more than 32 feet long, so large that a Shetland pony once posed inside it for publicity photos.


The two-and-a-half-ton console has six ivory keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons under the keyboards, and 42 foot controls. It has been named a National Historic Landmark and is valued at more than $57 million.

Wanamaker'sSome of the world’s finest musicians have performed on the Grand Court Organ, including Marcel Duprè, who played it several times from 1921 until 1948.   

Wesley Parrot, one of the regular Grand Court organists, performed the Allegro and Intermezzo from Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 6; the Finale to Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 4; Psalm Prelude, by Herbert Howells; and Arthur Foote’s Festival March and Night Prelude during the recital I attended. 


Free Wanamaker organ recitals take place Monday through Saturday at noon; Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 5:30pm; and Wednesday and Friday 7pm. No recitals are given on Sundays.  Visitors are welcome to tour the console area and meet the performing organist following the concert. Click here for more information, and here to listen to samples.

The Wanamaker Organ Hour, a monthly radio show, airs on the first Sunday of the month from 5:00 to 6:00 pm on Philadelphia’s WRTI-FM and can be heard online here. Archived shows are available here.  On Saturday, October 15, Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott will join Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte for a special concert.

For more on John Wanamaker and his department store, see Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle, by Michael J. Lisicky; Music in the Marketplace: The Story of Philadelphia’s Historic Wanamaker Organ: From John Wanamaker to Lord & Taylor, by Ray Biswanger; A Friendly Guide to Philadelphia and the Wanamaker Store, published by John Wanamaker in 1926; and Grand Celebration: The Historic Grand Court Concert for Macy’s 150th Anniversary, a sound recording by Peter Richard Conte.

Posted in History, Music, Philadelphia, Shopping, Travel | Leave a comment

This Philadelphia Pilgrim’s Progress Included A Corset And A Music School

“Don’t ask me to do anything like that again anytime soon,” my pastor said after he accompanied a group of parishioners to Philadelphia during Pope Francis’ September 2015 visit there.

Being in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people who crowded the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff would give anyone cause for pause. I, however, am still chastising myself for not taking advantage of that opportunity. So, I decided I’d make my own pilgrimage to some of those same Philadelphia sites that the Pope visited — and add a few related experiences that he didn’t have.

As I savored every last drop of the caramelized banana ice cream that the Franklin Fountain had concocted for the Pope’s visit, I reflected on my progress. Going to Independence Hall, where the Pope spoke about religious freedom and immigration – check. Walking along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where he visited the Festival of Families and attended a Prayer Vigil with the World Meeting of Families – check. Standing outside the Philadelphia Art Museum, where he celebrated Mass for the World Meeting of Families – check. Paying a Sunday visit to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where the Pope also said Mass, seeing where a Saint and her uncle lived, and meeting her relative – those were next.

First stop: the cathedral. Designed to resemble the Lombard Church of St. Charles in Rome, Italy, it was begun in 1846. Philadelphia’s fourth Catholic bishop, John Neumann, oversaw the completion of its construction in 1859.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Neumann was a studious Bohemian priest who liked astronomy, botany and playing the guitar. He also kept a diary, recording his struggles and his victories in trying to understand and accomplish God’s will for him. In 1836, he set out for the United States as a missionary, eventually becoming the first Redemptorist priest in the United States before he was named bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. The 49-year-old Neumann died of apoplexy in 1860; the cause for his beatification began in 1885 and was achieved in 1963, and he was canonized as the only male American Saint in 1977. While St. John Neumann’s official shrine is at St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, where he is buried, the cathedral maintains another beautiful shrine to him.Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Here, a marble statue of Neumann stands next to a mosaic illustrating scenes from his life. The phrase upon which he shaped his life, “Soli Deo (For God Alone),” appears amid symbols of the 80 churches built during his years in Philadelphia, the religious communities he introduced to the diocese, and his founding of the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States.Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

The cathedral also maintains a shrine to another Saint with an even stronger connection to Philadelphia: Katharine Drexel.

Born in 1858, Katharine was a privileged heiress who lived at 1503 Walnut Street, a place near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square that’s now getting a facelift.

Katharine Drexel's childhood home

Her cousin, George Childs Drexel, lived nearby in a beautiful mansion at 1726 Locust Street, now the home of the Curtis Institute of Music. Wrought-iron entrance doors open into the home’s original reception area, with its wood-paneled walls, carved limestone mantel, stained-glass skylight and gilded Steinway piano, became the site of the school’s weekly Wednesday-afternoon tea tradition.

George Childs Drexel House, Curtis Institute of Music

Katharine began considering a vocation as early as 1883, but confessed feelings of uncertainty. How could she bear poverty when she had never been deprived of luxuries? Would she become weary of doing the same thing day after day, year after year? She tested herself by eating rations and dressing in unbecoming colors, trying to discern God’s special mission for her. She professed her vows in 1891, went on to establish the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious community dedicated to the education of Native Americans and African-Americans that founded Xavier University of Louisiana. She was canonized on October 1, 2000.

While St. Katharine Drexel’s official shrine is located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, the cathedral’s shrine to her features a statue of her, as well as an altar that she and her two sisters donated sisters in memory of their father and stepmother.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

The Saint is depicted in another mosaic mural commemorating the centennial of the archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Catholic Church’s place in Pennsylvania history.

Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

And that brings me to the best Philadelphia experience the Pope didn’t have. I had lunch with Cordelia Frances Biddle, a descendant of Francis Martin Drexel, the Saint’s grandfather.

Mrs. Biddle is an author of mysteries set in Victorian-era Philadelphia who recreates that world by doing archival research at the Library Company of Philadelphia and reading “Philadelphia Gothic” murder mysteries like The Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall, which George Lippard wrote in 1845.

She talked to us about how etiquette books helped Victorians learn how to present themselves well. She invited us to try on a corset so we could understand what those fashions in those hand-colored illustrations of Godey’s Lady’s Book would have been like to wear. And she told us how she became interested in writing about her saintly relative.

Cordelia Frances BiddleShe described what it was like to attend the canonization in Rome, standing in St. Peter’s Square in the pouring rain, and then seeing the clouds part, the sun come out and a rainbow appear when the Pope proclaimed her relative a Saint. The cheering crowds made her realize how exciting it was that this new Saint was her relative, and she wanted to tell her story. What was Katharine like as a person, she wondered. Who was she as a child? How did her personality and strength of character evolve?

But she didn’t think she was good enough to write it. She kept putting it aside, but kept coming back to it because she thought Saint Katharine Drexel’s life story could inspire others to make the world a better place. She recalled reading archival documents that described what Katharine was like as a girl, battling with her sisters with icicles in Switzerland, someone who liked to have fun and was vain at times. That’s what convinced her to keep writing. When she told the archivist at the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’s Mother House that she was having difficulties writing Katharine’s story, the archivist responded, “That’s Katharine. She’s humble, and you need to talk to her about it.” She did, and it helped her finish Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel.

For more, read St. John Neumann, 1811-1860, Fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, by Robert H. Wilson; He Spared Himself in Nothing: Essays on the Life and Thought of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, C.Ss.R., edited by Joseph F. Chorpenning; John Neumann: Harvester of Souls, by Tom Langan; Seventy-Five Years of the Curtis Institute of Music, 1924-1999: A Narrative Portrait, by Diana Burgwyn; and My Philadelphia Father, by Cordelia Drexel Biddle, a memoir of her father Anthony J. Drexel Biddle that inspired The Happiest Millionaire, a film starring Fred McMurray and Greer Garson.

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Eat Schnitzel With Philbert At Reading Terminal Market

I cut my teeth on the joys of public-market shopping with produce from the Lusignolos, chicken from the Baumans, lunchmeat from the Heurichs, and other staple foods from the merchants who operated stands in the Quonset hut that was Columbus’ “real” North Market.

Reading Terminal MarketSo when searching for a quick bite to eat near my Philadelphia hotel, I looked no further than Reading Terminal Market, an enclosed public market at 12th and Arch Streets. Here, over 100 merchants offer a tantalizing array of fresh produce, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, ice cream, baked goods and more.

Open-air markets were big in Philadelphia until 1859, when the public became convinced they were unhygienic and city officials blew the whistle on them, replacing them with two indoor markets at 12th and Market Streets. In 1892, the Reading Railroad opened the Reading Terminal Market below the tracks of its new train shed. A state-of-the-art refrigerated storage area in the basement opened the following year, enabling merchants to stock seasonal products year-round. Hospitals leased out space there to store perishable medicine, while local breweries stored their hops there.

With nearly 800 spaces for vendors in the 78,000-square-foot space, the food market thrived at nearly full occupancy. As some vendors started offering a free market basket service, allowing suburban housewives to have their grocery orders delivered to their nearest train station, business continued to boom. Then, things changed. In 1984, trains stopped running to the station above the market and Philadelphia’s commuter rail system was re-routed to bypass the old Reading Terminal. The building was sold to the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, which continued to look out for this unique city landmark, even securing it as a filming location for several motion pictures, including National Treasure. Today, the market is home to nearly 80 independently owned small businesses serving more than 100,000 people every week.

Enter the ground floor of the former train shed, and you’re confronted by rows of market stalls, with a central open space filled with tables and chairs for patrons to use if they choose to enjoy their selection onsite. A sculpture of Philbert the pig, the market’s mascot, surveys the scene. Donations made to this oversized piggy bank support healthy eating programs in the community.

Reading Terminal Market

A handful of merchants tempt city dwellers with rural Pennsylvania Dutch favorites, such as dairy items and produce from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, hot pretzels made on site, and breakfasts and lunches served to never-ending lines of loyal patrons at the Dutch Eating Place. I developed a taste for Beilers’ hand-rolled Pennsylvania Dutch-style doughnuts, with flavors ranging from apple cider, Boston cream and cinnamon sugar to coconut custard, Key lime and my favorite, rhubarb cream.

Beiler's, Reading Terminal Market

Other merchants offer homemade fudge and nut brittles, fresh roasted peanuts, and Bassett’s ice cream, first scooped at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Quick-service restaurants serve Mexican, Cajun, Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and other international specialties, as well as the perennial Philadelphia favorites, hoagies and cheesesteaks. Still more meet more unique tastes, like a raw oyster bar and a creperie.Reading Terminal Market

At Wursthaus Schmitz, a German delicatessen, I surveyed the lineup of house-made Nürnberger and Münchner Bratwurst, Weisswurst and Currywurst; thick slices of fried bologna served with muenster cheese and horseradish sauce; Leberkäse and other meats served with side dishes like German potato salad, cucumber and red onion salad, red cabbage, sauerkraut, Bavarian cole slaw, potato pancakes and Spätzle. 

Reading Terminal MarketAs I waited for my Schnitzel sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato confit and herb mayonnaise, I browsed a large selection of German imported mustards, pickles, Mozart Kugeln and Katzensungen chocolates, fennel tea, plum jam, Breitsamer honey, and mixes for Bienenstich cake and Semmelknödel.

Reading Terminal Market


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Literature Lures At Rosy Brook’s Philadelphia Home

 2010 Delancey Place loomed as large on the map as my free time was small. How quickly could my feet take me to this Philadelphia destination revered by special collections librarians?

After all, it was almost Bloomsday — the celebration of the life of James Joyce that takes place every June 16, the date when the celebrated Irish writer had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle — and I wanted to see the place where Joyce’s original manuscript of his epic novel, Ulysses, was. Maybe I could even squeeze in the “James Joyce & Irish Authors” hands-on tour, during which a handful of visitors carefully handle, read and discuss the influences of works by Joyce, Bram Stoker of Dracula fame, and other notable Irish writers.

What is this legendary place, you ask? Allow me to introduce you to the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

I scurried past Rittenhouse Square, one of the five original greenspaces William Penn planned for central Philadelphia, and entered an exclusive neighborhood marked by luxury high-rise apartments, popular restaurants, high-end stores and five-star hotels. Spotting the street sign for Delancey Place, between 20th and 21st Streets, I hung a left and beheld an elegant, attractive street reminiscent of Mount Vernon Street on Boston’s Beacon Hill.Delancey Place, Philadelphia

Lining either side of the street were Civil War-era brick row houses trimmed with marble, keystones and semicircular fanlights. Their four-bay facades, with two windows to the right of the front door and one window to the left, were virtually identical, save for one numbered 2010, which was embellished with a Georgian revival window and a leaded glass fanlight. I had arrived at the former home of renowned rare-book dealer Abraham Rosenbach (1876-1952) and his antique-dealer brother, Philip (1863-1953).

Rosenbach Museum and Library

The Rosenbachs picked up their love of rare books and antiques from their uncle, who owned an antiquarian bookstore at 1320 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. When their uncle died, they inherited his stock, selling everything from top-notch British decorative art to kitschy Christmas cards.

In 1926, the bachelors and their two spinster sisters moved to 2006 Delancey Place; after the sisters suddenly died in the late 1940s, the brothers moved to 2010 Delancey Place. Master blacksmith Samuel Yellin made the front door and other decorative items for the Rosenbachs in his Philadelphia studio.

Rosenbach Museum and Library

Philip furnished their home with a spectacular array of tasteful items that either hadn’t sold in their store, or with which they couldn’t bear to part company. For example, after a document box that once belonged to King Charles II sat unsold in the shop for 15 years, Abraham had a table made for it and put it between two Shakespearean-era chairs in the center hallway.

The Rosenbachs’ guests dined on a Philadelphia-made table opposite a marble sideboard from their New York City home. A malachite calling card holder, a clock made from a marble urn decorated with figures of serpents that was fashioned by Marie Antoinette’s clockmaker, and a view of the Venetian quay painted by the Canaletto school complete the scene.

The parlor is decorated with a needlepoint card table, a Chinoiserie mirror, export porcelain and a circa-1750 mahogany highboy with flame finials and shell cutouts, signifying that it was made in Philadelphia. Lining the walls are several portraits of the Gratz family by noted American painter Thomas Sully, including one of Rebecca Gratz, who is said to have been the model of Rebecca, the heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.

Abraham’s great bibliographic treasures are the highlight of the upstairs library. As the leading American antiquarian book and manuscripts dealer of the first half of the 20th century, Abraham was a scholarly, savvy businessman who bought and sold Shakespeare first folios, Gutenberg Bibles and Bay Psalm books, those first volumes published in the colonies. He also acquired the original manuscripts of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin’s first Poor Richard Almanac; a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that John Bunyan inscribed to his cellmate; the first American edition of Pride and Prejudice; a lock of Charles Dickens’ hair; rings belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson; Lord Byron’s calling card case and Robert Burns’ powderhorn.

Why is the Ulysses manuscript in Philadelphia? In January 1924, Abraham bought it at auction for his own collection. Later that year, Rosenbach asked Joyce if he wanted to sell the page proofs for Ulysses, but Joyce told a friend that “When he [Rosenbach] receives a reply from me all the rosy brooks will have run dry.” He also wrote this limerick: Rosy Brook he bought a book/Though he didn’t know how to spell it/Such is the lure of literature/To the lad who can buy it and sell it.”

After the brothers died, the house and its contents became a museum and library, but it still feels more like a private home.

For more on the Rosenbach Museum and Library, see Rosenbach Abroad: In Pursuit of Books in Private Collections and Rosenbach Redux: Further Adventures in England and Ireland, both by Leslie A. Morris; and Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Museum Homes, by Roger W. Moss.

Posted in Books, Libraries, Museums, Philadelphia, Special Collections, Travel | 1 Comment