Text and photography by Allan Seiden
It was the opening of the new home for the fabled Barnes collection that drew me to Philadelphia for the first time in 50 years, done as a two-day, two–night side trip from New York.
Philly proved well worth the time and expense, starting with an $11 ticket on a comfortable BoltBus (www.bopltbus.com) departing midtown Manhattan with a convenient Philly drop-off at Union Station one-hour and 40-minutes later. There are also Amtrak trains, but they’re no faster,convenient or reliable and are far more expensive. The 30th Street Station, Philly’s deco-neoclassic train station, is an introduction to the city’s many architectural treasures revealed in a walk around downtown. The station, built in , provides a great open space given grandeur by The Angel of the Resurrection, a WWII bronze sculpture inside the 30th St. entrance.
History talkes two forms in Philadelphia,
one focused on the colonial past, the other on the artists who defined impressionism and contemporary art and whose works are on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes Foundation Collection, each home to a surprising number of masterpieces that put Philly on the map.
On the Trail of U.S. History
I thought I’d seen Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell as a kid, but it all looked
unfamiliar , with a very informative tour of the original chambers of American democracy. Once the heart of Philadelphia, it now sits to the west of downtown’s highrises, separated by a somewhat derelict urban neighboring crying for gentrification.
Independence Hall: Prime territory for history. It was here that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were
debated, written and signed, with Philadelphia serving as the national capital of the newly formed United States of America from 1790-1800. Tickets include a well narrated tour hosted by the National Park Service, with visits to the Assembly room and the legislative chambers where
the colonial delegates met and hammered out agreements that redefined the basis of government and individual freedoms.
Independence Hall is part of the larger Independence Hall National Historic Park, a 22 acre enclave of historic buildings, with visitor center (where the Liberty Bell is on display), Constitution display hall, and the National Picture Gallery
, housed in the neo-classic building built for the Second Bank of the United States in 1817. It’s a short walk to Christ Church, a masterpiece of colonial architecture dating back three centuries, that was home church to a wide range of revolutionary leaders.
Christ Church is a masterpiece of colonial architecture. Founded in 1695, it’s congregants included most of the revolutionary hierarchy.
At 548-feet, City hall was long the tallest building in the city, an iconic symbol left that honor by tacit agreement until skyscrapers remade the skyline. It remains an architectural marvel, it’s gingerbread detail in Second Empire style, is topped by a 37-foot, 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn,whose lands became Pennsylvania back in 1681, a 40,000 square mile payback of a royal debt due Penn’s father.
A riverside city made prosperous by trade (furs and grain topped the list) and commerce, Philadelphia was a multi-ethnic city, liberal in its philosophic orientation by Penn’s Quaker beliefs and the city’s large Quaker colony.
Although skyscrapers now tower over City Hall, it remains an impressive civic monument, a world-record holder as the tallest all-masonry building,with the Penn bronze the largest rooftop statue in the world.
Built in the rich-in-detail Second Empire style, it is an elegant symbol of the cit, its 700 rooms making it one of the largest municipal buildings in the world.The stark, angled glass architecture of the Cira Centre provides a startling contrast in style to City Hall’s detail. Lit in spectral color at night, it is a modernist landmark.
Millionaire Alfred Barnes had an eye for great art and the money to follow through. Befriended by the Steins in Paris, Barnes was introduced to the revolutionary art world of Paris in the 1920s. Renoir, Manet, Monet, Rousseau,
Barnes saw his collection as a tool for teaching about art, not as a museum collection in the traditional sense. Taking his cue from the traditional curatorial style of his times, clustering pictures in almost floor to ceiling display. Barnes clustered what he called ensembles, making choices for display that made a comparative study of artistic styles and the creative diversity that gives art its individuality. This is a collection worthy of a trip to Philly, its overkill of masterpieces best appreciated by multiple visits.
Barnes was so emphatic about the presentation of his collection, that he made its display contingent on it remaining in the mansion he built for it in garden setting in Merion, just outside of Philly.
For financial reasons and in a desire to make the collection more readily accessible to the public, the will was broken, with a new museum built within walking
The Philadelphia Museum of Art (www.philamuseum.org/visit) is a 15-minute walk from the Barnes.
It’s iconic Greek buildings,
a backdrop for Rocky Balboa’s arms-up claim of victory, features an equally noteworthy collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art (a bronze Rocky is a photo op on the front lawn). Galleries are well lit, with masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Modigliani, with Picasso, Arshile Gorky, Kandinski and Warhol to enjoy. I’ll only say that I found the more restrained and isolated presentation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art made appreciating each individual work far easier.
There’s enough to see to fill a couple of days with hstory and art, longer if possible.
Busses and taxis provide point-to-point service, but walking reveals the city in rich detail.