Unlisted Philadelphia: Smith Memorial Arch

 

Unlisted Philadelphia highlights interesting and significant Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. To learn more about the local designation process and how you can participate in nominating a building to the Philadelphia Register, visit the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s website for more information.

BUILDING: Smith Memorial Arch

LOCATION: Avenue of the Republic at Lansdowne Drive, West Fairmount Park

ARCHITECT: James H. Windrim

YEAR: 1898-1912

The statues of Civil War heroes Gordon Meade and John Fulton Reynolds rise above the gateway of West Fairmount Park like later-day stylites or pillar-saints, their gazes fixed on the city’s skyline from the tops of the 120-foot Doric columns of Smith Memorial Arch. Down below, on an elegant heap of Beaux-Arts marble designed by renowned architect James H. Windrim, the generals are joined by equestrian statues of their Union compatriots George B. McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock. Eight bronze busts of various Civil War officers and Philadelphia dignitaries join the committee along with eight allegorical bas-relief angels inside the curving spandrels of the two monumental archways and two large eagles flanking the base. At right, the full-torso bronze portrait of a millionaire, Philadelphia type founder Richard Smith, in a humble printer’s smock peers through a loupe at a small piece of lead type. Type casting was the root of Smith’s fortune and source of the monument itself, arguably one of the most impressive collections of turn-of-the-century American public sculpture in Philadelphia, if not the nation.

Richard Smith was one of the two Smiths (along with his older brother John F.) represented in the Philadelphia firm of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan Company, one of the largest American type foundries of the Victorian era. Born in Philadelphia in 1821, Smith spent much of his early career in New York and Europe studying type casting and electrotyping, an emerging technology not unlike a primitive incarnation of today’s 3-D printing. He returned to Philadelphia in the 1840s to work for the Johnson Type Foundry near 6th and Sansom Streets, in the heart of Philadelphia’s burgeoning Printer’s Row. Following proprietor Lawrence Johnson’s death in 1860, Smith and three young associates inherited the firm, renamed it, and led its ascent into the vanguard of American type design. The firm was particularly known for its vast catalogs of eclectic “fancy” typefaces and ornamental borders, those ostentatious bits of filigree so ubiquitous in Victorian-era ephemera. When Smith died in 1894 he left more than a half-million dollars in his will for the construction of a children’s playground in East Fairmount Park (the still-beloved Smith Memorial Playground) and a monument to Pennsylvania’s Civil War veterans in West Fairmount Park.  

Two typeface offerings of MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan Company. | Source: Archives.org

Smith secretly commissioned the monument from his close friend James H. Windrim in 1890, placing a plaster model and specifications for the approved final design in a safe deposit box to be opened at the time of his death. The Fairmount Park Art Association selected the sculptors for the assigned statuary. 14 of the era’s leadings artists were commissioned, including Daniel Chester French, Alexander Stirling Calder, John Massey Rhind, Charles Grafly, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Katherine M. Cohen. Work on the monument began in 1898 and was originally expected to take two years, but the last pieces of sculpture were not completed and installed until 1912.

Fairmount Park is an embarrassment of architectural and monumental riches, and most of the park’s historic buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, including the Smith Memorial Playground, also designed by Windrim. Yet, the Smith Memorial Arch currently enjoys no official recognition or protections by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, despite its lofty pedigree and even loftier profile.

About the author

Ben Leech is a preservationist, architectural historian and illustrator based in Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Instagram @bentleech and support his capitalist alter-ego at Archivolt Press



3 Comments


  1. Whispering benches

  2. As a Child in the 1940s’, we would sit on the long semi-circle bench. One at the left one at the right, then whisper into the marble bench, the person at the other end could hear it, thus the nickname whispering corner. Yes, It is a beautiful monument. I also remember a visit to Horocurial Hall. It was a sad day when it was demolished.

  3. Bradley Peniston

    Among the worthies immortalized in bronze is John B. Gest, a Philadelphia banker who…um…was the guy Mr. Smith put in charge of building this thing.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Celebrating Rebellion: On The Picket Line With The Suffragettes Of Philadelphia

Celebrating Rebellion: On The Picket Line With The Suffragettes Of Philadelphia

June 24, 2019  |  Vantage

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Pennsylvania ratifying the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. With Independence Day fast approaching, Amy Cohen introduces us to the rebellious suffragettes that fought for equal rights in Philadelphia > more

Residents Sound Off To Land Bank Following Release Of New Report

Residents Sound Off To Land Bank Following Release Of New Report

June 21, 2019  |  News

The Philadelphia Land Bank draws anger and frustration with the release of its new strategic plan and performance report. Kimberly Haas has the details > more

Growing Pains Yield Gains For The Mütter Museum

Growing Pains Yield Gains For The Mütter Museum

June 20, 2019  |  News

The Mütter Museum, one to the country's premiere medical history museums, prepares for a major expansion with a $25 million capital campaign and designs by KieranTimberlake. Kimberly Haas has the news > more

Italian-American Heritage & Industrial Landmarks Go Under Review For Historic Designation Recommendation

Italian-American Heritage & Industrial Landmarks Go Under Review For Historic Designation Recommendation

June 17, 2019  |  News

Starr Herr-Cardillo has this roundup of local register nominations on the agenda at the June meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission's Designation Committee > more

Homeowners Pay The Price When New Construction Damages Neighboring Rows

Homeowners Pay The Price When New Construction Damages Neighboring Rows

June 14, 2019  |  News

Owners of row houses are left with little recourse when demolition and new construction causes structural damage to their homes. Starr Herr-Cardillo takes a look at a growing citywide problem > more

The Origins Of The Eagles On The Market Street Bridge

The Origins Of The Eagles On The Market Street Bridge

June 13, 2019  |  Vantage

Ed Duffy rides the rails from Manhattan to Philadelphia to give us the backstory on the granite eagle sculptures that stand guard over the Schuylkill River > more