The making of the Art Museum

With the NFL draft and Frank Gehry’s plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s expansion, the Fairmount neighborhood has seen more than its fair share of recent construction and turbulence. But this perhaps pales in comparison with the building of the Art Museum itself. While stuck in traffic on the Parkway, consider the story of Eli Kirk Price II, the man who shepherded the project to completion.

First, some background. The institution now known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art began on the west side of the Schuylkill.

As plans came together for the 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine – i.e., the Centennial Exhibition – Philadelphians spotted an opportunity.


Stereograph depicting the Centennial Exhibition opening ceremony ca. 1876. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection of Centennial Exhibition records [1544]

The $1.5 million Art Gallery would not simply serve as a temporary building for hosting the exhibition’s 3,256 paintings, 627 sculptures, and 431 works of applied art.


Instead, it would become a permanent art museum and school once celebrations concluded, “with a special view to the development of the art industries of the state.”

art gallery

Watercolor depicting the Exhibition’s Art Gallery, ca. 1876. From the David J. Kennedy watercolors [V61]

The Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was chartered the same year, “for the improvement and enjoyment of the people of the Commonwealth” and taking up residence at the gallery after the Centennial celebrations.

The Beaux Arts building – now known as Memorial Hall and home to the Please Touch Museum – reopened to the public in 1877 as a general museum.

Soon, the institution found itself bursting at the seams. Its collection swelled in tandem with the number of patrons. Nearly 380,000 walked through its exhibits in 1894 alone to view carved ivories, textiles, metalwork, costumes, and paintings.

memorial hall

Lithograph depicting Memorial Hall ca. 1900. From the Jane Campbell scrapbook collection [V71]

The following year, a competition commenced for proposals for a new museum.

Over more than a decade, various designs and locations were considered — including Center City and other Fairmount sites — before a plan was adopted.

The final design involved the input of several architects, including Paul Cret, Horace Trumbauer, and Julian Abele — the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program.

As for the site, timing is everything, in city planning as in life.

With the decision to abandon pumping drinking water from the Schuylkill, Fairmount Hill had recently become available.


Fairmount ca. 1800. From the David J. Kennedy watercolors [V61]

Not only was the location Philadelphia’s highest point of natural elevation, civic champions of the City Beautiful Movement imagined the new art museum atop the former reservoir would serve as the capstone for a planned Parisian-style parkway connecting Center City with Fairmount Park.

Good ideas, to be sure. The perennial question, however, remained: Where is the money going to come from?

This is where Price enters the scene.

Eli Kirk Price,  1928 winnerPortrait of Eli Kirk Price, ca. 1928. From the Philadelphia Award Records [3081]

A lawyer by training, Price served as vice president of the Fairmount Park Commission in March 1917 when the plans were formally approved.

But even with his social cachet, Price’s work was cut out for him.

The first hurdle was geopolitical. A month after the plan’s adoption, America entered the First World War. With scarce nonmilitary labor and materials, construction would not begin until two years later.


British marines and tanks staging mock battles at League Island, site of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, ca. 1918. From the Philadelphia War Photograph Committee collection [V03]

The second obstacle involved penny-pinching bureaucrats. Price set out with the pitiful sum of $200,000 and suffered a “storm of abuse and ridicule” with each request for more money from City Council.

The third hitch involved the proposal itself. Many of the city’s leaders and architects were less than enthused about the design, denigrating it as a “pile of rocks” and “that Greek garage.”

Price proceeded undeterred.

Knowing that he would have to pry open the city’s coffers through hook or crook, he presciently began construction of the museum’s two wings first.

The reason? He knew city officials would not stomach a gaping hole between the two and would fork over the cash to complete it.

Through pluck and persistence, Price eventually gathered $12 million in public funds for the project.


Two men painting the French Renaissance room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ca. 1936. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]

After nine years of construction – but with much work remaining – the museum opened to the public featuring “not only paintings, but works of sculpture, furniture, tapestry weaving, gold and silversmithing, and other crafts.”

By the end of its first year in Fairmount, the newly christened Pennsylvania Museum of Art counted one million visitors. Its current name, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would not be adopted until the end of the 1930s.


The Philadelphia Museum of Art, ca. 1939. Photograph © K. F. Lutz. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection (#V59)

Price, for his part, was heralded as one of the greatest civic leaders of the century. Price Fountain, flanking the Washington monument in Eakins Oval, honors his legacy.


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