The Revolution, Stuck With Stern


Whoomp, there it is | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Museum of the American Revolution

Whoomp, there it is | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Museum of the American Revolution

Well, there you have it, folks. The Museum of the American Revolution (MAR) has a “terrific” new design—just ask The Inquirer’s Maria Panaritis. In her story in today’s paper, she dusts off her hands and effectively declares “welp, that’s that!”

Panaritis states forthrightly that the design firm “went back to the drawing board after the [Philadelphia Art] commission, during a February meeting, found fault with its renderings, saying it did not feel all architectural components of the planned building fully blended with the surrounding historic district,” and that in response, “Robert A.M. Stern Architects delivered.” (Emphasis ours.) In the next-to-last paragraph she discloses in parentheses that the museum’s main backer is the newspaper’s part-owner Gerry Lenfest, and that fellow part-owner Lewis Katz is a board member at the museum.

Oh cool, they're keeping part of the building they're demolishing | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Museum of the American Revolution

Oh cool, they’re keeping part of the building they’re demolishing | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Museum of the American Revolution

But the big takeaway is that the revised MAR received unanimous approval from the Philadelphia Art Commission, the body charged by charter mandate to review architecture and public art to “insure that anything built in the City of Philadelphia is of the highest quality of design possible and that the many individual pieces that make up the physical City fit together to make a strong whole so that the City remains a vital and desirable place to live, do business and visit.”

Last month, the commission sent RAMSA back with a list of problems that needed tending, problems that RAMSA has addressed in the updated designs, available on the MAR web site HERE. (An additional aside: if MAR is the preferred shorthand for the museum, perhaps a domain name better than could accommodate that preference.)

Sean Buffington, Chair of the commission, said via email this morning, that “significant changes were made in response to the specific concerns expressed at the previous Commission meeting… In the view of the Commission, all of those concerns were addressed in the revised design. The design team made changes to the Chestnut façade, the 3d St. façade, the entrance, the cupola, and the public spaces abutting the museum.”

Indeed, those things have changed. The embarrassing cupola has been removed, Chestnut Street now has basic lip service in the form of a bas-relief replica of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and a door over which some as-yet-undetermined historic quote will be placed (spelled in the updated renderings by a stately Lorem Ipsum). And the public space closest to Third and Chestnut now has an extra tree and extra people.

To see the before-and-after of the main rendering—which Property has this morning—is to play the old Highlights for Children “spot the differences” game. Gone is the cupola, added are the people. But as before, the design as a whole is far more goofus than gallant.

Robert A.M. Stern might be one of the foremost names in contemporary architecture, but Philly keeps getting stuck with his also-rans. Glaxo’s new building is great, but it’s off the map down at the Navy Yard. Comcast Center is decent, but it’s about to take a back seat to Norman Foster’s CITC. The new Drexel buildings are strictly middle-of-the-road. But 10 Rittenhouse Square? McNeil Center for Early American Studies?

Unfortunately, that ill-placed light doesn't cover up more of the view of the McNeil Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

Unfortunately, that ill-placed light doesn’t cover up more of the view of the McNeil Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

These nauseating knockoffs burden Philadelphia out of some made-up debt to historicism, and only in the most prime of locations. Rittenhouse Square is ringed with buildings of their time, from Frank Furness’ Reilly house to Donald Reiff’s so-70s Rittenhouse Hotel, which has its own interesting story wrapped up in construction suspension that delayed the hotel’s opening all the way to 1989. And then there’s 10 Rittenhouse, built in 2009 to look like a 2009 version of… the 1920s I guess? Likewise Penn’s campus reads like an architectural Who’s Who with its Furness and Kahn and Saarinen and so on. And then right at 34th & Walnut is Stern’s faux-historic McNeil Center.

And soon, joining them will be the Museum of the American Revolution. At Third and Chestnut in the heart of the City’s profitable tourist corridor, Stern’s new building offers up its sincerest form of flattery, colonial imitation on grand display. And though the Art Commission must formalize the vote, yesterday’s unanimous approval rolls out a red carpet to do so.

At long last, a centralized museum will honor the boldest action taken by our Founding Fathers, and predictably, there’s nothing bold whatsoever about its design. Perhaps the most maddening thing about it, RAMSA knows it. On its own web page for the MAR, the “Press” section foregoes the critiques of Hidden City Daily co-editor Nathaniel Popkin and Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron for a single link: to a story in Period Homes magazine where the writer freely admits, “I knew instantly that the architecture critics would hate Stern’s design.” He then does us the favor of confirming this: “Sure enough, the reviews were almost uniformly negative because the design was not ‘revolutionary.'” He even lambastes any detractors as “The Taliban of Architecture.” In fact, that was his story’s title!

Whether Gerry Lenfest and MAR President Michael Quinn liken valid criticism of their museum to ethnic cleansing, human trafficking, al Qaeda support, and flagrant oppression of women is unclear, but probably unlikely. It doesn’t matter anyway, as the dull and tired RAMSA design is in the pipeline, like it or not, Philly. Just as the Taliban destroyed the centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, so too shall we destroy the decades-old Bicentennial-era Visitors Center, with demolition to start as early as next week to make way for the new museum.

When it opens in 2016 or whenever, the Museum of the American Revolution will join the ranks of the South Street Bridge and Pennsylvania Convention Center, building on Philadelphia’s legacy of missed opportunities.

About the author

Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.


  1. If it was me, I would have tried to replicate Independence Hall’s design in the building vice doing a modernized version of a Revolutionary War brick building. That would have included pitched roof with slate and blend in nicely with the rest of the buildings nearby. Even the 1976 Visitors Center and its design blandness left a void on the land it occupied until its immient demolition next week.

    Stern’s revised design is a correction of a term paper given a second chance by a teacher. We have all had this experience in school before.

    It is my hope that the gifted from Great Britain Liberty Bell removed last year from its perch on the old Visitors Center will proudly repose ground level in the center of the new building under construction.

    • I agree that the Bi-centennial Bell is a piece of “history” overlooked by our City … delivered by Queen Elizabeth ll .. a direct descendant of King George III for our 200th Celebration of Independence. The bell is engraved with the phrase “LET FREEDOM RING” and that exact phrase was never so directly connect to the original Liberty Bell as when Queen Elizabeth presented the BICENTENNIAL BELL to the City on July 6,1776 with these words ending her presentation:

      “Today, to mark the 200th anniversary of that declaration,it gives me the greatest pleasure, on behalf of the British people, to present a new bell to the people of the United States of America. It comes from the same foundry as the Liberty Bell, but written on the side of this Bicentennial Bell are the words “Let Freedom Ring”.

      It is a message in which both our people can join and which I hope will be heard around the world for centuries to come.”

      We can no longer touch or truly ring the LIBERTY BELL, but this BICENTENNIAL BELL, from the same foundry as the original should be touched, caressed and RUNG as the Queen has spoke to:”LET FREEDOM RING”

  2. With taxes at 50-60% of income, the powers that be are building a museum to the American Revolution?

  3. The 1970s Brutalist visitors’ center is a thousand times more interesting than either of Stern’s designs. Its demolition will be lamented in the near future.

    I just wish Stern could offer us something really first-class as a replacement. He is capable of good work in his historicist, Postmodern style, as buildings like 15 CPW prove.

  4. Preach on, Brad. The design now looks like a lifestyle center that belongs somewhere in Jersey , not the cradle of liberty.

    • That is just appalling. The design is simply far too conservative for Mr Maule and Mr Popkin. I highly respect their opinions – and value them, which is why I read this blog regularly – but for anyone to suggest that the previous Visitor’s Center is “a thousand times better” or that this proposal looks like a strip mall isn’t being serious but simply reactive, in my view.

      Stern’s people have gone a long way towards improving the original proposal and their goal, it seems, has been to create in the style of the early republic based on the classical ideals that were part and parcel of the very revolution that took place 238 years ago. I do not believe they were charged with building for a continuing revolution but to commemorate the American Revolution.

      But ultimately it will be what happens inside that will determine whether this building is a success or failure.

      • Acknowledging or celebrating the “classical ideals” of the Revolution, and/or commemorating the events, has little to do with style/material mimicry and visual context. To simply consider Stern’s design as “too conservative” for someone else’s taste is also wrong. The main issue is that there is NOTHING authentic or honest or relevant about the design. It’s lazy. We should be designing and building experiences that are of our time…buildings that create a formal, spatial, and experiential dialogue between our current values and technology and that which we are referencing historically…a building that doesn’t mimic the style of the time of the Revolution, but is imbued with the very spirit of the Revolution. It’s context is history itself and the ghosts of the Founding Fathers, not the tone of brick of neighboring Old City buildings.

        What happens inside will only partially determine the building’s success or failure…that interior experience is strongly tethered to the building’s formal presence as experienced from the outside.

        • I have to disagree respectfully. I’m not sure that “our time” is any more valid than any other time. I wish the design were more inventive within the constraints of classical architecture – that’s my beef with it. But I don’t think Jefferson was worried about “his time” when he took elements of classical architecture and used them to visualize his democratic concepts, not our current values.

          In any event, I know I am the lone voice here that doesn’t wish it were excruciatingly trendy architecture. I just wish it were more elegant and beautiful. If it were it might serve as a thing of lasting beauty – that’s what great architecture does – to me.

  5. “the design as a whole is far more goofus than gallant.”

    Well said, Sir. The highlight of my lunchtime reading.

  6. I have nothing witty to add except to say that this design is an embarrassment to Society Hill. I had no idea Stern designed the McNeil Center. I was actually in there today and thought to myself that the building looked as if it were designed in Google SketchUp in a few hours.

  7. Oh man, now you got me all riled up! And it’s past my bedtime!

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