In West Philly, Finding The Source Of Barnes’ Fortune

March 6, 2013 | by Vivienne Tang


The foundation of the Barnes empire | 40th & Filbert

Barnes Foundation foundation: 40th & Filbert | Photo: Bradley Maule

It’s a rare sunny winter day and a young woman and two men are sitting outside an ordinary West Philadelphia apartment building.

“Hey, do you guys live here?” I ask them.

“Yeah,” says one of the men.

“Do you know anything about its history?”

“Man, you have no idea how many people stop me and say they used to come here when it was called CC’s nightclub. People say it was really cool, a real jazzy kind of place.”

“Have you guys heard of the Barnes Foundation?”

“Yeah, never been though.”

“You know, he had a factory in this building? And he used to hang paintings here.”

“No way, seriously?”

Despite all the attention paid to the Barnes Foundation’s move into Philadelphia, there is in fact no blue plaque here, no mention in any guidebook. But this corner a half block from the 40th Street El station is the source, so to speak, of Dr. Barnes’ magic potent, the antiseptic Argyrol. And Argyrol is the source of his extraordinary art collection.

From the Barnes archive | Photo: Vivienne Tang

From the Barnes archive | Photo: Vivienne Tang

In 1902 Barnes and his partner Herman Hille rented eight rooms of what was the Hotel Powelton to produce Argyrol. Used to prevent infant blindness and to treat infections like gonorrhea, Barnes found markets for Argyrol worldwide. Indeed, venereal disease made Barnes a very rich man.

Hotel Powelton, 40th and Filbert | Source: The Official Office Building Directory and Architectural Handbook of Philadelphia, The Commercial Publishing and Directory Co., Philadelphia, 1899, p. 436 courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Hotel Powelton, 40th and Filbert | Source: The Official Office Building Directory and Architectural Handbook of Philadelphia, The Commercial Publishing and Directory Co., Philadelphia, 1899, p. 436, courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Here, Barnes created an integrated factory more than half a century before the Civil Rights movement. With just 20 workers at its peak, Barnes’ factory was a small, well-oiled machine. It was so efficient that two hours could be cut from the eight hour business day. But instead of letting workers clock out early, Barnes devised an experiment in education and put on voluntary “seminars.” These lessons covered philosophy, psychology, educational theory and art appreciation.

de Chirico, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, 1926 | Image: Courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

de Chirico, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, 1926 | Image: Courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

“What we believe our experiment indicates,” said Barnes in 1923 in The New Republic, “is that great things of creation, in art, literature and thinking, can be resolved to fundamentals of human nature and in simple form be so presented that they may be grasped by plain, even illiterate, people to the point of the particular person’s capacity.”

Barnes used the millions Argyrol brought him to go on prodigious buying sprees around Europe. Back on US soil he put paintings up at his family home and when space ran out there, he started putting them up in the factory building, which he had since purchased. Documents from the Barnes Foundation Archives say paintings by Derain, Demuth, Prendergast and his childhood friend Glackens hung alongside works by Soutine, Picasso, Modigliani and Chirico here on 40th Street. Barnes used the paintings in his educational experiment. Some of the reactions documented can be found in the Barnes archives in Merion today. Here are some of them I uncovered in February. (Unfortunately, there’s no real evidence to link these reactions to the specific paintings. But each of the following works are in collection and may have hung in the factory.)

Picasso, Musical Instruments on a Table, 1915 | Image: Courtesy

Picasso, Musical Instruments on a Table, 1915 | Image: Courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

“Looks to me like musical instruments.”–Unidentified Worker

“I don’t know what it is, no, I see nothing in it.”–Margaret Mullin, factory worker.

* * *

Modigliani, Léopold Zborowksi, 1919 | Image: courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

Modigliani, Léopold Zborowksi, 1919 | Image: courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

“I don’t care very much for this picture. I don’t see as much for a picture like this as I do a landscape. He is refined looking and neat. I like the colors. I think he looks intelligent.”–Unidentified worker

“I can’t say I am struck on him. I don’t care much for him, I don’t care for any of these long-necked things, well he hasn’t a bad expression, his eyes are the least foul part of him, a kindly, soft expression. The color is attractive, bright.”–Margaret Mullin, factory worker.

“I don’t care for this picture, I can’t tell you what it is but I don’t like this picture, I don’t like the colors.”–Erma Troop, factory worker.

* * *

de Chirico, Two Mysterious Cabins, 1930 | Image: Courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

de Chirico, Two Mysterious Cabins, 1930 | Image: Courtesy Barnes Foundation, copyright 2013

“Yes I like that picture, I see a building, flags, trees. I think there is a boat in the back. I like the shading, also the colors.”–Unidentified worker

“Yes, I like the sky, the houses on each side, I like the statue, I see some little flags. I like this picture the colors are very pretty especially the colors in the sky.”–Anna Smith

“Yes I like it. I see buildings, a statue, trees flags. It looks heavy to me. I like the colors.”–Nell Paden

* * *

“The results have been sufficiently encouraging to justify the attempt to continue the experiment on a larger scale through the medium of the Foundation,” said Barnes.

With the Argyrol business doing just fine without his daily input, in 1922 Barnes refocused his energies and established his eponymous educational foundation. He was a man with a mission again. It was during this time that Barnes commissioned, built, and filled the Merion gallery. Then in 1929 he got rid of AC Barnes Co. altogether, selling the formula and factory to another pharmaceutical company, Zonite Products Corporation. The timing was spectacular. A few months after the sale the stock market crashed. As for the drug? Argyrol eventually became obsolete when antibiotics, which promised to cure venereal diseases, came on the market.

Some six million dollars richer, Barnes bought another city home for his foundation, this time in more genteel surroundings. At 4525 Spruce Street, the mansion was a short walk away from the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. It was also the cause of an acrimonious and highly publicized fight with the City of Philadelphia.

4525 Spruce, the source of Barnes' first tiff with the City

4525 Spruce, the source of Barnes’ first tiff with the City | Photo: Bradley Maule

After Barnes converted the the mansion into offices, the City sent him a tax bill for $756. It was a minor sum for a wealthy man, but he fought it tooth and nail on principle. Barnes insisted that the building should operate tax free because it was an educational institute. City officials disagreed. When repeated appeals by Barnes failed, he went to the court and put on a show. He got art experts, horticulturalists, and even his good friend the famous educator John Dewey to testify on behalf of the foundation. Together they used the court as a bully pulpit to explain Barnes’ educational policies.

And they had an answer for everything. When authorities said the mansion was too elegantly furnished to be mere offices, Barnes retorted that he bought the furniture from his former factory, that it was purchased as junk for $200. When asked why there was a kitchenette for the offices, the doctor said it was to provide lunch for his employees. When asked if any profits were made in the building, he jokingly said “only if the janitor runs a craps game…and I don’t think he does.” The City’s case crumbled. The victor donated the spoils to a police pension fund—just to show that it wasn’t about money.

Two decades later in 1951, Barnes met a violent end when he drove past a stop sign on his way to Merion. His body flew from the car after it collided with a 10-ton trailer. Barnes died instantly, in a characteristically dramatic manner. But of course the Argyrol legacy lives on. The Barnes Foundation is one of the greatest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world. Famously no longer in Merion, it’s only 20 blocks or so away from the 40th & Filbert factory that preceded it.


About the Author

Vivienne Tang Vivienne Tang is a former broadcast journalist who grew up on three continents. A proud graduate of the University of Chicago and King's College London, she is a teller of stories, an avid urban explorer and a self-confessed nerd. She is currently a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist.


  1. Karl White says:

    Excellent article. We need many, many more like this!

    1. Timothy Phillips says:

      Unfortunately, I am employed by PNC bank. I wish they had stayed with the Philadelphia Flower Show.

  2. rebecca says:

    Terrific article.

  3. Brad Peniston says:

    Fascinating. Thanks.

  4. Samson Curtis says:

    Thanks to Ms. Tang. Please keep the articles coming.

  5. Richard Bready says:

    It was here that Hermann Hille, who discovered the formula for Argyrol and developed the method of manufacture, was required by a court to teach it to Barnes, who first sued Hille to dissolve their partnership, then obtained a court decree that one partner must sell to the other, then outbid Hille for the company. A building rich in history, and the scene of some energetic conversations.

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      You are absolutely right about Herman Hille’s involvement. It’s really interesting how Barnes controlled the marketing of Argyrol and tried so hard to leave Hille’s contribution out of it. Even decades after Argyrol was sold to Zonite.

      If I recall correctly, Hille was the man who discovered the way to make Argyrol. Barnes took credit by saying he thought of the idea and that Hille was merely the cook who thought up the recipe.

      If there’s anything to be learnt about the Hille/Barnes part of the saga, it is that the victor often dictates history.

      Fascinating stuff. If walls could talk!

      1. Victoria Skelly says:

        Vivienne Tang’s comment that “Barnes took credit (for Agyrol) by saying he thought of the idea and that Hille was merely the cook who thought up the recipe” is unfair to the legacy of the founder of the Barnes Foundation. Innovation in pharmaceuticals as well as many other industries necessarily must come from the contributions of persons with all sorts of educational backgrounds. Barnes was an MD with a keen sense of what pharmaceutical remedies were required at the time. He met Hille, a chemist, who could do the formulation for his idea, on a trip to Germany. They formed a partnership which later ran into some troubles, as many fledgling partnerships do. Hille didn’t manage the sales and production of the drug. Barnes and his employees did. That is where the money was made.
        Saying Barnes unjustly took credit for what Hille developed is like saying Steven Jobs didn’t deserve to profit from the ideas his employees and partner helped bring to fruition!
        This article is really interesting in that it describes that part of Barnes history that few really know about. But please stop denigrating Barnes where he doesn’t deserve it. He may have been brusque or rude to some people (like Jobs!), but you simply cannot take away either the achievement of his company or the educational Foundation he created.

        1. Vivienne Tang says:

          Hi Victoria,

          I apologise if I’ve offended you or the legacy of Dr. Barnes. I have huge respect for the man, his entrepreneurial spirit and and the contributions he made to art and education. However, the question regarding who deserves full credit for Argyrol is a complicated one.

          There’s something to be said about the fact that Barnes had to sue for the formula. Then again, without Barnes’ seed of an idea, not to mention marketing genius, it is unlikely that Argyrol would have been such a success or even existed at all.

          1. Victoria Skelly says:

            Hi Vivienne,

            No apology necessary and no offense taken! You are right that designating credit for Argyrol is a complicated one. But that is so for any pharma product. Can anyone name who is responsible for the first effective therapy against HIV? Probably not, and to be sure this was groundbreaking science.
            I was responding to the tone of blame that you, your readers, and quite frankly most people seem to have about Barnes.
            Does anyone consider that Hille the chemist would have been more blameworthy for the “sting” they received in having received a dose of Agyrol? Of course not! It’s ALL Barnes’ fault!
            It is so rare to read what I will call a balanced voice about Albert Barnes. I find that all biographies written about him are slanted and speculative, as news coverage has been of his legacy. So the public attitude towards Barnes is understandable, yet regrettable. Henry Hart’s “Dr. Barnes of Merion” published by Farrar,Strauss and Giroux in 1963 is one exception, however. Hart was the ONLY biographer who had had a positive relationship with Dr. Barnes. You would think this book would have had a really popular run, but, alas, if you can find a copy now, you are lucky.
            Years from now when we will all be in possession of technology that makes what Steven Job’s company made seem like paraphernalia of a dinosaur age, the legacy of Jobs will be recorded as a brilliant hero. Barnes, however, will always be the “eccentric”, the “irascible”, the “ruthless” in whatever he did, and that is because he crossed just a few powerful people in his time.

          2. Chris H says:

            To Victoria: I know little of how Barnes is viewed, or the debate surrounding his relationship with Hille. I will only say this–as someone who works in academic/research science, the more time I spend here the more I appreciate Edison’s quote “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”. Which is to say, a good idea is only an idea if it can’t be made to work. And as someone who works closely with chemists, I have the utmost respect for how much work can go into the development of a “formulation for an idea”. It is non-trivial work that is often equally as important as the idea, as there are so many ideas which fail because they cannot be “formulated”. With this I do not mean to lessen anything about Barnes, I really know little of the case, and he clearly seems to have been a brilliant man and an excellent businessperson, but I would also take care not to gloss over the role of a a guy (Hille), who sounds like he may have been an exceptional chemist who did basic work on a product that served as the “foundation of the foundation”, just because it happens to be part of an unsavory chapter of one’s own hero’s history. Equating him to “Steve Jobs employees” seems to be doing just that, as it sounds to me Hille never entered into a partnership with the idea that anything he thought up belonged to his partner (as is the case with an employee who is required to sign an intellectual property agreement).

          3. Vivienne Tang says:

            That was a really insightful comment. I must confess that even I glossed over the Barnes/Hille saga. It is definitely an area of Barnes research that has largely been ignored by researchers like myself and perhaps deserves further study.

            Thanks for adding your voice to this. It is always so fainting to look at stories from different perspectives.

          4. Chris H says:

            By the way–really enjoyed this article and learning about where Barnes came from. Thanks, Vivienne.

          5. Victoria Skelly says:

            Thanks to Vivienne and Chris H. for your responses. At this point I think we are basically all in agreement about the need to give credit where credit is due. I worked in the Research and Planning area of a major pharma company for years, and I can attest that attribution of credit to individuals is as problematic today as it ever was.

            Here is a quote on page 42 from the aforementioned “Dr. Barnes of Merion” by Henry Hart that should help clarify the Barnes/Hille relationship:

            “The success of Argyrol, and to a much lesser degree, of Overferrin, gave Hille time to nurse his dissatisfactions with American life. He was homesick, he hated the United States, and he refused to learn English. But since there was nothing in his family situation in Germany he wanted to return to, he was chronically frustrated. Barnes’ trips to Europe to promote Argyrol, which he began making in 1903, intensified Hille’s loneliness.
            The partnership ended in 1907 after Hille brought suit to force a dissolution. He was awarded, Barnes said many years later with “several hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The A.C. Barnes Co. was incorporated in 1908.
            Hille then went to Chicago, where he established a laboratory of his own. He died on April 28, 1962 in his home in Deerfield, Illinois, aged 90.”

            So no need to feel sorry for Hille.

  6. Ken Reisman says:

    Wonderful article

  7. chris wink says:

    interesting stuff. i also once read from ken milano that Barnes grew up in Fishtown on Wilt Street, where I’d expect one of those blue signs too. have you seen that confirmed elsewhere?

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      I’m quite sure he was born in Kensington, then moved to “The Neck” in South Philly and then to Tasker Street. I must admit, I haven’t checked either of those childhood homes for blue signs!

  8. David Swift says:

    What is 4525 Spruce used for now?

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      Good question. It isn’t clear when 4525 Spruce was sold by the Foundation.

      As far as I could see, 4525 Spruce is now a series of flats or apartments. That’s just an educated guess extrapolated from the existence of a set of post-boxes on the side of the building. There were no business signs and I couldn’t find any local residents to ask. So no primary sources I’m afraid.

      If you have a better idea, please do let me know. I’d love to hear from current or previous tenants or anyone who has actually stepped foot in there!

      Thanks for reading.

      1. Michael Buckley says:

        It is used as apartments. I live there now. Glad to have found this article, I had heard from the landlord that it was formerly owned by Barnes and used as offices, but never confirmed this. Now I know.

        Each floor has 2 apartments, all flats. 6 apartments in total. Managed very well, and a beautiful building to live in.

  9. Jean H. says:

    In my childhood, the nineteen thirties and forties, Argyrol was used as a nose drop when one had a cold! I remember it as an evil smelling, brown staining liquid with a dreadful taste and I recall being told it contained iodine. Bad as it was, it has given us the Barnes collection so no complaints.

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      That’s cool! You’re the first person I’ve (kind of) met who has ever mentioned their own experience of using Argyrol. I asked a couple of pharmacists about it recently and all I got were blank looks.

      What’s really interesting is that someone bought the patent a few years back and has tried to put it back on the market. As far as I know, the efforts have been unsuccessful.

      On a slight tangent, I see mentions of it being used regularly in the 1930s and 1940s, it was even mandatory for US soldiers as a “post-exposure” treatment, my question is: was Argyrol really a household name?

      Thanks for the insight, it really is interesting!

  10. Jean H. says:

    In my childhood, the thirties and forties, Argyrol was used as an evil smelling, brown, staining nose drop! Bad as it was, it gave us the Barnes collection!

  11. I.David Popkin says:

    I am 75 years old and can vividly remember my mother putting argyrol drops in my nose. It wwas very unpleasant to say the least.

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      Was it just disgusting smelling or did it sting? Do you remember any side effects?

      This is all so fascinating. Thanks for reading!

      1. Davis says:

        My father used it his whole life – swore by it – but was also disgusted by the process of painting his throat with it. I happily avoided it altogether.

  12. Kostis Kourelis says:

    Dear Vivienne

    Your posting was so GREAT that I had to include it in the weekly Friday Links of the Society of Architectural Historians. See lower left side: http://www.sah.org/
    However, I realized that the web manager has used your photo, as well, and we never asked you permission. Is it OK? If not, I can make sure to remove it.

    Thank you for your research. Your post so nicely complements David Brownlee’s little book on the Barnes buildings: https://store.barnesfoundation.org/itemShow.aspx?Dep=BUcbIJ9PULNHGwyyruPV7g==&Cat=rnIQqv9+hRc=&It=JopKWm5gvY4AoDTLVg64Lw==&nid=1521

    If you ever want to post any of your writings on the SAH blog, please email me (kkourelis@gmail.com). As of a couple of weeks ago, I have become the Society’s blog editor.

    Kostis Kourelis

    1. Vivienne Tang says:

      Thanks for reading and for the extra links. It really was a fun and interesting story to work on – I have to thank the editor, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall for suggesting it.

      Feel free to use my photo and thanks for the positive comments!

    2. For the photos of 40th and Filbert and 4525 Spruce, please credit Bradley Maule, Hidden City Daily

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