Art & Design

The Philadelphia Art Alliance At 100: Centennial Exhibition Celebrates The Wetherill Mansion

August 12, 2015 | by Karen Chernick


| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Philadelphia Art Alliance made a home for itself inside the Wetherill mansion 86 years ago | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Samuel Price Wetherill mansion at 18th and Manning Street, headquarters of the Philadelphia Art Alliance since 1926, is one of only four remaining decadent homes that once lined Rittenhouse Square. The former Alexander Van Resselaer mansion at the northwest corner of 18th and Walnut is now an Anthropologie store and the Drexel residence, at 18th and Locust, has been used as by Curtis Institute of Music since 1924; 1804 Rittenhouse Square, still a private residence, is sandwiched between 15 story tall 1800 Rittenhouse Square, a Neoclassical apartment building, and the Modernist Rittenhouse Savoy.

2015 is the 100 year anniversary of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, founded by Mr. Wetherill’s daughter Christine Wetherill Stevenson, and to celebrate the Art Alliance presents Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat. The show features newly commissioned installations by five Philadelphia-based design and architectural firms that relate the history of the 109 year old Italian Renaissance Revival palazzo and the concept of what a house really means.

| Photo: Steve Weinik for the Philadelphia Art Alliance

Plumbob’s minature Wetherill mansion (with lasers) | Photo: Steve Weinik

Melissa Caldwell, chief curator of the Art Alliance, explains that “because our building is such a unique space for contemporary art, I wanted to play with ideological meanings associated with the history of domestic architecture, the original function of the building as a residence, and the physical features of the first and second floor galleries. We have done exhibitions in the past that have also played off of the building, but with craftspeople. This time around, we really wanted to focus on design-based firms since our mission is both craft and design.”

On the ground floor of the mansion, design studio Qb3 has installed speakers in the ceiling of the original Wetherill parlor room that carry voices to the room above. The installation title, Walls Have Ears, is a play on the word “parlor,” which comes from the French word parler, “to speak.” Unsuspecting gallery goers may not fully understand that visitors in the room above are hearing their conversations.


Qb3’s parlor receivers carry conversation to the second floor | Photo:  Steve Weinik

In the adjacent room that was formerly a library, Slow Architecture firm AUSTIN + MERGOLD have created The New Primitive Hut, an exploration of the origins of architecture and how ceilings have been used to delineate domestic space. The metal ceiling created for the installation offers a stark contrast to the original ornate one.

Upstairs in the former Wetherill music room, Interface Studio Architects has explored the most ubiquitous form of Philadelphian housing–the row house. “Since the city’s founding, deep lots with narrow street frontages, bounded on both sides by adjacent structures, have defined many of its neighborhoods. These straightforward three-dimensional boxes, typically 16 feet wide, 40 feet deep and 35 feet tall, have proved remarkably flexible, accommodating shifting demographics, densities, and lifestyles from the 1700s to today,” says the artist’s statement. ISA showcases some of its own row house designs, and also presents a small, interactive model where visitors can experiment with various arrangements of stairwells and rooms.

Also upstairs, an installation by Moto Designshop creates a memory map of visitors’ recollections of home. Guests are asked to draw on nuanced memories of their childhood homes, like the type of light present in their bedrooms, and make a map using brightly colored string.


Interface Studio Architects allows visitors shift around a row home floor plan | Photo: Steve Weinik

The last installation, BusyBody, refers to the three-mirrored device allegedly invented by Benjamin Franklin that enables viewing the street at grade level from a second floor window. Just as an actual “busy body” snoops on the street, BusyBody is described by designers PLUMBOB as a “nosey intrusion” into the art center’s attempt to create an anonymous gallery space out of what was once Christine Wetherill Stevenson’s bedroom.

“The existing gallery erased any reference to this original private space of encounter in order to establish a public space of anonymity, appropriate for the exhibition of art,” says the artist statement. “This anonymity occurs precisely from the decision to eliminate any connection between interior and exterior of the building by sealing-off all windows from the interior, and with it any intrusion of natural light, views, time or place.” In order to reconnect the gallery space to its history and to Rittenhouse Square, PLUMBOB excavated an original window that had been sealed since the 1950s and installed a large busybody mirror, thus allowing views of the park into the space. The BusyBody installation also recreates the proportions of Stevenson’s bedroom and bathroom (and includes the placement of a historically accurate claw foot bathtub).”

Home Is Where The Art Is

Philadelphia Art Alliance founder Christine Wetherill Stevenson in front of Ford Theater on Cahuenga Pass in Los Angles. The amphitheater was built explicitly for performances of her dramatic piece, The Pilgrimage Play, which ran every summer from 1920 to 1929 until the building was destroyed by a brush fire | Photo courtesy of Music Center Archives

Philadelphia Art Alliance founder Christine Wetherill Stevenson in front of Ford Theater on Cahuenga Pass in Los Angeles. The amphitheater was built explicitly for performances of her dramatic piece, The Pilgrimage Play, which ran every summer from 1920 to 1929 until the building was destroyed by a brush fire | Photo courtesy of Music Center Archives

Along with a longstanding commitment to showcasing local art, craft, and design, the PAA has historically exhibited international artists like Mary Cassatt (whose brother, Alexander, lived nearby at 202 S. 19th Street), Man Ray, Andrew Wyeth, and Antonio Gaudi, and has hosted performances and readings by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, and E. E. Cummings.

Stevenson, heiress of the Pittsburg Paint Company and co-founder of a drama group, The Plays and Players, first rented offices and gallery space for the Art Alliance at 1709 Walnut Street. Her father bought 1823-25 Walnut Street (razed in the 1950s) and rented the building to the Art Alliance at a generous discount. Stevenson moved the organization into the space in 1918 while she planned an impressive, seven story home for the art center on the 1800 block of Walnut Street that was to include an auditorium, a theater, club rooms, two elevators, and a lobby. Her plans never came to fruition, although they were publicly discussed as late as 1924.

After Christine’s sudden death in in 1922 and her father’s passing in 1926, the PAA bought the family mansion at 251 S 18th Street from his estate, and it has been the organization’s permanent home ever since. Wetherill’s widow and son, who were still living there at the time, moved around the corner to 1830 Rittenhouse Square, which was the first highrise on the Square and one of Wetherill’s post-retirement real estate development projects.

Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat closes August 23rd. The Philadelphia Art Alliance is located at 251 S. 18th Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11AM to 5PM and Saturday through Sunday from 12PM to 5PM.


About the Author

Karen Chernick Karen Chernick is an art historian and museum professional who recently moved to Philadelphia from Tel Aviv. She is excited to discover the stories that her new home has to tell through its design, architecture and urban renewal.

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