At The Foot Of The Mountain

Liberty Museum and Constitution Place photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Directly across Chestnut Street from the museum site photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In an interview a few weeks ago with the Inquirer’s Melissa Dribben, Robert A.M. Stern, the architect chosen to design the Museum of the American Revolution, at 3rd and Chestnut, said, “[The Museum of the American Revolution] will use the familiar language of traditional Philadelphia architecture: red brick, limestone, possibly wooden windows, though I’m not sure about that yet. What is important is that our building will use those familiar elements in an inventive new composition that will seem very much a part of the traditional urban fabric and architectural family of the Independence Hall area. If we do our jobs well, it will look like it could never have been built any other place but there.”

Near 3rd and Chestnut, First Bank of the United States in the center, directly across 3rd Street from the site of the Museum

As I argue in today’s Inquirer, Stern’s reliance on traditional materials is a misguided exercise in contextual architecture. Actually, 3rd and Chestnut is the center of a neighborhood of wildly–wonderfully–diverse architectural expression, a testament to many layers of this city’s history. But what Stern seems to say is that if the museum is about the American Revolution, it must therefore be built to feel like it is from that same period.

1850 Penn Mutual designed by C.P. Cummings, demolished 1950, 3rd and Chestnut

This literal interpretation of context, I worry (though no designs are yet forthcoming), will result in an uninspired building. “Actually,” says Daniel Kelley, principal of the Philadelphia architectural firm MGA Partners, “I think that retro architecture–if that is what Stern intends to produce–is even more pernicious than “uninspiring.” Seen more darkly, that kind of architecture can and will strengthen the toxic neo-traditional cultural forces that are already at a dangerous level in our country. If that seems too dark an idea, then I can also imagine a dismal sort of ‘Disneyfied‘ character brought to the National Park, confusing millions of tourists and confounding the relationship to the First Bank across the street and the Customs House (one of the best buildings in Philadelphia) down the block.”

“Anyway,” he says, “wasn’t the Revolution a progressive act? And isn’t it really still ongoing? Then it seems like the architecture of the museum should be progressive.”

Stern appears genuinely charged to take on the commission, a little awed perhaps by the subject of the birth of the nation, and he said something else to Dribben I quote in the newspaper article: “It will be a small building at the foothill of a mountain.” Stern means literally that the Museum will be dwarfed by the massive adjacent Custom House, but I take it to mean the Museum’s relationship to the other sites, like Independence Hall, and the enormity of the events that took place in them.

Acropolis Museum Bernard Tschumi Architects

The metaphor of a museum at the base of mountain gives us an opportunity to consider the American Revolution project in light of another, quite similar museum, that actually sits at the base of a mountain in a lively and historic urban neighborhood: the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, designed by Bernard Tschumi, and which opened in 2008.

Like the Museum of the American Revolution, the Acropolis Museum is meant to show off an iconic collection while simultaneously revealing the history of an epic period. With the Acropolis (literally highest point in the city) above, the museum makes no effort to imitate the materials or the time of Ancient Greece, rather it uses the language of contemporary architecture to reveal, educate, and evoke the mountain’s many stories.

“There were people who advocated that the New Museum should be in the style of the Parthenon,” Tschumi told Wallpaper Magazine. “I always say that I did not want to imitate Phidias, but to think like Pythagoras. In other words, think of mathematics and master geometry, and start from a level of abstraction. But the top room, the glass enclosure, is really all about the Parthenon–it is absolutely parallel to it.”

Acropolis Museum Bernard Tschumi Architects

The result is a dynamic building–perhaps the best contemporary museum I have been to–which fluently reveals centuries of history while at the same time giving the nation’s most beloved artifacts a place of supremacy and grandeur. One key to the project is the way it provides a window onto the 19th century neighborhood around it, while exposing the archeological remains of ancient cities below. In fact, the entrance is a translucent surface that allows you to see walls and floors and streets of those cities.

It happens that the Museum of the American Revolution will be required to do an extensive archeological analysis of the site. Given the amount of Native American artifacts recently uncovered along the Delaware River, it’s possible this site could reveal more–and much about the layers of people, ideas, and architecture we condense into “history.”

Benjamin Franklin, on the facade of the American Philosophical Society photo: Wally Gobetz

This is the hope. Planners say they envision using the Museum to reveal some of the adjacent sites, including the neoclassical First Bank of the United States (pictured above). What they must do is use the opportunity not to imitate but to abstract. There are still lessons to be had from the ancient world, especially if we follow Tschumi’s instinct, to invent a place of parallel stature to the mountain.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  1. Unless they put a lot of exhibit space underground, the building would seem to need to be way larger than any 18th century building that existed here. With the most likely result being a Disneyified building.

    But before poo-pooing Stern, we do have some good examples of how to do this right here in Philly, with the Graff House being the better example. When they rebuilt Graff House, which looks very authentic, they added a then very contemporary addition for the additional museum space. The other example is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko house, which features a dug out basement and uses one or more attached buildings for the museum.

  2. Stern’s quote doesn’t sound very promising, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His firm’s original plan for Valley Forge — — was pretty progressive, at least relative to a bucolic battlefield. Especially with Dock Street encompassing a large portion of the building site, Stern has the opportunity to really do something impressive.

    If he MUST insist on referencing the nearby urban fabric, maybe he can somehow recall the old Penn Mutual Building, Philadelphia’s first steel frame building, which once stood on the same site and which was so foolishly demolished in the 1950s.

    • Thanks to Brad for reminding us of the 1850 Penn Mutual Building that stood on the site of the future museum. It was one of the nation’s first cast iron buildings (photo inserted into article above). The facade, according the Arcadia Press book on Society Hill, was fabricated by “bolting together cast iron plates.”

      The wider point is that context is complicated business. One of the contexts is the entirely ignored Dock Street. So Stern does indeed have a chance to awaken Dock Street and engage the wonderful Merchant’s Exchange. Now if the Park Service can wake up and bring that building alive (and give us back those steps for resting and people watching…)

  3. The exciting and fascinating thing about the heritage and preservation fields is the tension that exists between the forces that work toward formal and functional continuity and those that promote discontinuity and interruption. Both are part of a vital city, an essential tension that creates the palimpsest heterotrope that is any great city.

    This tension is embodied to the extreme in the ARC project. While the idea of a “museum of revolution” is a funny paradox in itself, it seems even more incoherent for the building that houses such a project to be an anachronistic pastiche. Though, as the article concedes, we have not yet seen any designs, so who knows? My personal opinion is also that the ARC organization is too conservative and has succumbed to a degree of myopic mandarinism in focusing just on the American Revolution, when we have the opportunity to offer an international exploration of Revolution in general, given the evens of the past couple years. There is only one other international museum to Revolution, and our own naval gazing is far less interesting than placing our heritage in a global context.

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