13 October 08: Catching up with the Art Museum

These economic tough times could especially spell tough times for museums, but you'd never know it from all the activity surrounding the museums in Philadelphia.

Chemical Heritage Foundation just uncorked the champagne for the opening of their new museum which this web site previewed in June and which Inga Saffron reviewed for her column two Fridays ago. The unusual but fascinating -- if a little industry friendly -- museum opened its doors for First Friday, showcasing the Making Modernity exhibit. Visit the web site HERE.

Up in Fairmount Park, Memorial Hall is at long last dusting off its makeup kit and getting ready for the ball. The Centennial's art gallery, designed by Herman Schwarzmann (who also designed the amazing homes facing Memorial Hall along Parkside Avenue) specifically as the centerpiece of the 1876 expo, is reopening this weekend as the relocated Please Touch Museum. Four years and $88M after announcing the move from the much smaller space across the street from the Franklin Institute, Please Touch appears to be stunning. Culture writer Peter Dobrin previewed the space for the Sunday Inquirer, which also included a nifty online feature in the form of a magic book belonging to Schwarzmann, HERE.

Back down on the Parkway -- our Museum District, if you will -- the Youth Study Center has relocated to a temporary location in East Falls while a new center is built in West Philly. Waldemar Raemisch's Great Mother and Great Doctor sculptures have already been moved and dedicated at the Microsoft School in Parkside. That leaves the unheralded but unwelcome modernist building at 20th & the Parkway ready for demolition. The rumor is that Williams Tsien Architects would unveil the design for the new Barnes Foundation building that will replace it this week, but that's apparently the best guarded secret in New York, as no one in their office would speak about it and there is nothing 'official' online on their web site nor on the Barnes'. So we'll see what happens there . . .

That's the museum front covering the industrial new, the expensive adaptation, and the controversial move. But quietly up on a hill called Faire Mount stands our greek temple of kasota stone, steadily improving its space inside, outside and in between.

It occurred to me on Saturday that I had not been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art since the Frida Kahlo exhibit, and more embarrassingly, on the grounds behind it, nor on Kelly/MLK Drives for that matter, since February's Water Works Balustrades essay (19 February 08). I took a ride around the grounds to see how things were coming along, and the photos that follow were the answer to my question.

We'll start along Kelly Drive, behind the Azalea Garden, with the least sexy improvement -- a 440 car parking garage. * Please note: this image is not click-to-enlarge-able, because uh, it's a parking garage under construction, but the rest of the images in this post are, so click, enlarge, enjoy.

Once it's done, it will at least have a little sexy, as a landscaped sculpture garden is planned for the garage's roof, with panoramic views of the Water Works, Schuylkill River and Boathouse Row. The project is expected to be completed next summer; visit the PMA web site's section about the parking facility HERE. Between the new garage and the Museum . . .

. . . is the west entrance walkway, currently covered in the boulders that were excavated for the construction of the garage. Those boulders will be removed, "recycled and used in terraced boulder retaining walls, much like those found along Kelly Drive," according to a PMA statement.

Heading out to the gazebo at the Water Works, restored by Mark B Thompson Architects in 2004, we find the Schuylkill at low tide, a crystal clear blue day, and a couple of guys who came to town to shoot the Water Works and Philly Skyline with their large format camera. Right on.

Back over on the Schuylkill River Trail, we have a nice survey of the Water Works in wedding mode (there were at least four separate wedding parties having their photos taken in the time I was there), the view to Cira Centre, and current work on the cliffside paths. Thanks in large part to the work of the late Ernesta Ballard, a founding member of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and who has a flowerbed and plaque dedicated to her on the trail, the South Garden and Cliffside paths have been reborn, in part to pay homage to the site's history (this area was once the jewel of Fairmount Park, with the Water Works' reservoir atop the hill that the PMA calls home now) and more importantly to sew the PMA, Water Works and Schuylkill River Trail back together in a seamless and appropriately aesthetic manner.

Though the paths are not 100% done, a good portion of them are already functional, elaborated by decorative railing. On the hill in this picture, we can see the construction of the Rustic Pavilion . . .

. . . a reimagining of the original lookout at the same location. The Rustic Pavilion is connected to the Mercury Pavilion, which too is being restored, to include a statue of Mercury atop the shed, by a wooden boardwalk.

Below these is the recently restored Marble Fountain, not to be confused with the Italian Fountain, the centerpiece of the current parking formation between the west side of the Museum and Boathouse Row. The Marble Fountain is the focal point of the South Garden. Between it and the Water Works restaurant is the recently restored Frederic Graff Memorial. Graff designed the Water Works in 1812 and was the city water department's chief engineer in the mid-19th century.

Along the southern wall of the Museum, between Spring Garden Street and MLK Drive, where they meet the River Trail as it heads downhill to Center City, the steep bank has been replaced by an ADA friendly scissor style ramp. (Crossing traffic on MLK to the Trail is another story.)

While we're here on MLK, we're gonna head out along the Schuylkill for that classic Museum/Water Works view, for a full survey on the goings on between the two places. Above is one, below is another.

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There's a lot going on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its neighbors. All of the above doesn't even make mention of last year's opening of the Perelman Building, nor the ongoing efforts at the Rodin Museum, nor of the expansion -- by 60% -- of its main building's space, a good deal of which is subterranean. The architect charged with that enormous expansion is the famously flamboyant Frank Gehry.

Suitably, the PMA is opening an exhibition on November 8, in the Collab Gallery of the Perelman Building, called Frank O. Gehry: Design Process and the Lewis House. A ticket to the opening reception and Gehry lecture is a cool two hundred beans, $350 for the VIP tour.

Finally, this post would be incomplete without at least one Philly Skyline PMA Skyline, so let's wrap things up with a view longtime readers of this site and fans of Comcast Center might recognize.

–B Love