The Making & Breaking Of The Philadelphia Commercial Museum

November 14, 2018 | by Edward W. Duffy

The Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center in 1954. The building on the left was what remained of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. | Image courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Traveling south on 34th Street through the University of Pennsylvania campus crossing Spruce Street a canyon of medical research and hospital buildings rise along Civic Center Boulevard. Two decades have passed since the eponymous Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center was demolished by Penn and this thoroughfare is the legendary event hall’s only reminder. The Civic Center itself absorbed an even earlier institution there, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, which opened in 1894 during the heyday of the city’s reign as the “Workshop of the World.” The genesis of the Commercial Museum sprang from Philadelphia’s largest and most successful celebration to date, the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

Captains of Industry

19th century Philadelphians were justifiably proud of the leading role their city was playing in the American Industrial Revolution. Production from the William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company and Baldwin Locomotive Company carried Philadelphia’s manufacturing reputation to all points on the compass. The Centennial Exhibition’s organizers used the celebration as an opportunity to showcase not only the city’s Revolutionary War history, but also its rising mercantile accomplishments. These organizers, members of the American Philosophical Society, forerunner of the U.S. Patent Office, and the Franklin Institute made sure that manufacturing would take center stage, with one of the Centennial’s largest and most popular buildings, Machinery Hall, displaying Philadelphia’s industrial prowess.

The 1876 event was judged to be an unqualified success, with more than nine million visitors during its six-month run. Following the closing of the fair in November, a group of citizens sought to keep the Machinery Hall concept as a permanent exhibition housed in the main building, which they purchased at auction. Their permanent exhibition, which relied entirely on private contributions, was a failure and soon closed. Many of the fair’s displays ended up at the Smithsonian. Some may still be seen in Philadelphia at the Ryerrs Museum in Burlholme. The museum’s inability to financially sustain itself was disillusioning for its founders, but it caught the imagination Dr. William Powell Wilson, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. 

An Evening Public Ledger clipping from 1931 shows Centennial Station at 32nd and Market Streets. | Image courtesy of Germantown Historical Society

At the time of the Centennial, Penn had only recently moved to West Philadelphia. The City had come into ownership of a portion of the sprawling Hamilton family estate, The Woodlands, and conveyed a 10-acre site to Penn for the school’s move in 1874, later adding 18 acres. This new Penn campus was north of Blockley, the city’s home for the indigent along the west bank of the Schuylkill River. Blockley’s long, sloping riverfront lawn known then as Almshouse Park. In 1866, its lawn was crossed at grade by a railroad line, the Junction Railroad, linking the 30th Street railyards with Grays Ferry and the main line south to Baltimore.

Professor Wilson suggested to Penn’s provost, Dr. William Pepper, that a commercial museum similar to the permanent exhibition attempt might be successful if it were jointly funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City and private contributors. Dr. Pepper, who had been medical director of the Centennial, agreed and instructed Dr. Wilson to purchase the displays of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, filling 28 rail boxcars. The City approved participating in the museum with a June 20, 1894 ordinance and conveyed the 56-acre Almshouse Park site east of 34th Street below Spruce Street for its construction. It would take time to assemble the funding and construct the new museum, but Dr. Pepper and Dr. Wilson were able to gain an important patron for their project, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s president, George B. Roberts.

Manufacturing a Museum

George Roberts could be called a prodigy, matriculating at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and completing the school’s three year engineering course in two years when he was 17-years-old. He then undertook a year of post-graduate work before joining the PRR in 1851 as a surveyor’s rodman. By 1881, he had become the company’s president. Roberts was also an energetic, civic-minded executive and lent his considerable talents to several municipal projects including the expansion of the city’s port and removal of islands in the Delaware River.

PRR shared Philadelphians’ enthusiasm for the 1876 fair and created a new Centennial Station at 32nd and Market Streets capable of accommodating the movement of more trains than any other station in America at the time. Complementing this station, the PRR had created its Centennial Depot on the fairgrounds.

President Roberts’ help was sought with two public issues on his watch that were of considerable interest to Penn and the Franklin Institute. The first was how to accommodate the 1884 International Electrical Exhibition, and the second, ten years later, was how to provide quarters for Dr. Wilson’s collection of Columbian Exhibition artifacts.

View of the Pennsylvania Railroad adminstrative office building at 233 South 4th Street in 1871. This would be the first home of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

The 1876 fair’s most remarkable exhibits had been Thomas Edison’s electric illumination and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The Franklin Institute sponsored the 1884 International Electrical Exhibition, featuring what was said to be the greatest accumulation of electrical equipment in the world. The event was supervised by Penn engineering professor William D. Marks. An exhibition of this size needed a suitably large venue, but by then almost all of Centennial buildings had been demolished. The Franklin Institute turned to Roberts, who offered the use of his vacant Centennial Station for the exhibition. This station provided about half of the space needed. The Franklin Institute constructed additional, temporary quarters nearby on 33rd Street. This brilliantly illuminated event hosted over 1,500 exhibits featuring the application of electric power to the operation of printing presses, sewing machines, pipe organs and railroads, among others. Over 285,000 visitors toured the show between September 2 and October 11 when it closed.

Among the exhibit’s many innovations, the display of electric-powered trains made possible the construction of subway lines heretofore thought to be impossible because of steam engine exhaust. In 1880, the City’s comprehensive planning committee released a plan for North Philadelphia envisioning North Broad Street as a boulevard bordered by elegant apartment buildings and mansions. Two of a few remaining examples of this era are the Divine Lorraine Hotel at Fairmount Avenue and the Burk mansion at Jefferson Street. Not then cognizant of electricity’s transportation potential, the plan imagined Broad Street 50 years into the future, in 1930, when public transit would be provided by hot air balloons tethered to mooring masts on the rooftops of apartment buildings. The appearance of electric powered trains four years later signaled a practical underground alternative to such exotic, Jules Verne-inspired transportation.

When Dr. Pepper and Dr. Wilson discussed the creation of their museum they turned to Roberts for his advice, and he offered them the interim use of the PRR’s old office building on South 4th Street until a new museum building could be completed. This would be its home for its first five years.

The Beginning and End of an Institution

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum, constructed between 1897 and 1899, was designed by Philadelphia architects G.W. and W. D. Hewett. The building’s style was influenced by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition where architecture revived interest in civic beautification through classicalism. That this World Fair artifacts would be housed in a museum where its design mirrored the Columbian fairgrounds was a happily, coincidental marriage of form and content. The museum had its own station on the PRR at the approximate location of SEPTA’s University City station on its Airport Line.

The museum’s completion was celebrated by hosting the 1899 National Export Exhibition which ran from September 14 to November 30 and attracted over a million visitors. This Exhibition of American Manufactures coincided with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Franklin Institute. Less than a year later, the museum hosted the National Republican Convention at which President McKinley was renominated, to be joined on the ticket by New York governor Theodore Roosevelt. Although Philadelphia had a convention hall elsewhere at that time, the new museum had become the city’s showcase.

Philadelphia Commercial Museum upon opening in | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

The Commercial Museum was actually four buildings, the “Philadelphia Museums,” together constituting a permanent international trade exposition as Dr. Wilson had intended, who remained its director until his death in 1927. In addition to the Columbian artifacts, the museum collected displays from the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York, and Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. It housed exhibits from the Philippines, Africa, China, India, Mexico, and Latin America. These collections included rare and unique string, wind, and percussion musical instruments that could no longer be found in their countries of origin. A 1961 handbook of its musical instrument collection included a forward by Philadelphia Orchestra maestro Leopold Stokowski.

The museum operated a Foreign Trade Bureau housing all available information on the subject of foreign trade. It had a Library of Commerce and Travel with 50,000 volumes, a Translation Department, and an educational program providing lectures and free distribution to schools of materials for geographic and commercial instruction. It published a weekly bulletin for American manufacturers and a monthly journal, Commercial America, targeted to foreign markets. The museum employed a staff of 12, which also produced numerous publications on diverse trade topics. Staff also translated and published ancient Greek texts, like The Periplus of Hanno, an account of the voyage of discovery in the 5th century BCE of the West African coast by a Carthaginian admiral, and The Parthian Stations of Isidore of Charax about the overland trade route from the Eastern Mediterranean to India in the first Century CE.

The museum attracted visitors from throughout the United States and from around the world. Free public lectures were featured on Saturday afternoons, and there were daily geography lectures for visiting student groups. The museum also produced educational materials on trade, economics, and geography for distribution of schools throughout the United States. Funding came from City and Commonwealth appropriations and from businesses relying on the Foreign Trade Bureau’s information resources.

Timelapse photograph of the Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center being demolished in 2005. | Photo: Andrew Evans

It is remarkable that such an international program would have been pioneered by a municipality and inevitable that this program would eventually be assumed by the Federal Government, as it was in the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Domestic and International Trade, and Census of Manufactures. By the time of Dr. Wilson’s death, the museum’s research functions had begun to shift to the U.S. Department of Commerce under secretary Herbert Hoover, and its location adjacent to the Penn campus was attracting the attention of planners looking for alternative, City-owned sites for a new municipal auditorium. An Art Deco auditorium was built on a portion of this site beginning in 1929 when two of the museum’s four buildings were demolished. By 1937, the museum was described as an adjunct to the auditorium. Having hosted both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1948, the auditorium was renamed Convention Hall. The Civic Center name was added to the complex in a series of ordinances beginning in 1955.

The newly named Civic Center Museum soldiered on with its programs and materials for students and its various permanent exhibits, including the Delaware River Basin Commission’s Incodel model of the region, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s acre-sized Philadelphia Panorama mechanical scale model of Center City showing improvements planned in five year increments. During the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebration, Remo Saraceni’s whimsical ‘Design for Fun’ was installed. This was the last major exhibit to be presented in the museum, which finally closed in 1982 after its collections had been dispersed to other museums.

The Civic Center and Convention Hall outlived their usefulness following construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Wells Fargo Arena. The storied complex was replaced by the University of Pennsylvania Health System’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in 2008.


About the Author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).


  1. Michael McGettigan says:

    In the mid-1980s, while reporting at the Philadelphia City Paper, spoke by chance spoke with a few former Penn anthro and history scholars who had done cataloging work there. They told grim tales of city officials breezing through and having their wives try on vintage kimonos and admire various items, which would subsequently vanish. Towards the end, the Commercial Museum was a sort of attic for the city, and at one point, its managers had the above interns marking boxes of glass plate negatives–which contained hundreds, perhaps thousands, of survey photos of historic Philadelphia, often made during subway construction and other major civic projects.

    They later discovered that the boxes they’d been assigned to mark and gather were being hurled into city trash trucks, unopened. “You could hear the glass plate negatives smashing from across the loading dock,” recalled the man, still gripped by the emotion of unwittingly enabling such vandalism.

    1. Laura Blanchard says:

      A collection of lantern slides from the Museum met a gentler fate. As part of its education program, the Museum lent out collections of these slides to schools. Many of the slides were dispersed to area institutions. The remainder were housed in a warehouse at the Pennsylvania State Archives, which sought a new institutional home for them.

      Fearing that the slides might be lost, a team of staff from institutions of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries took delivery of the slides, conducted a top-level inventory, rehoused them, and conveyed them to a member institution for safekeeping in a climate-controlled facility.

      1. bob eskind says:

        is it possible to disclose the member institution presently housing the commercial museum lantern slide collection? or what remains of it?
        i’ve long been interested in the CM’s effort to create a comprehensive visual index of the world. While the prints that were issued with the educational cabinet museums are an important distillation of this effort, i think the lantern slides may offer a broader window into their work.

        1. Richard Pell says:

          I’d love to know where any lantern slides or other ephemera of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum are now located. I have acquired what I believe is a “cabinet museum” that was produced by them, but desparetely want more context.

  2. Jay Farrell says:

    “Having hosted both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1948, the auditorium was renamed Convention Hall.”

    Let’s not forget the Progressive Party, who also held their nominating convention at Municipal Auditorium that same year.

    1. Edward Duffy says:

      Mea maxima culpa!

  3. Stephen Marmon says:

    Whatever happened to that marvelous Philadelphia Panorama scale model of Center City? Loved seeing in the late 60s.

    1. Jon Bart says:

      Wasn’t that moved to Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum)?

  4. Edward Duffy says:

    In the 1970s and early ’80’s a portion of it was on display in the lobby of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, then occupying the top floors of the City Hall Annex Building. When the Commission relocated, a portion of the display was moved to the lobby of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation in the ‘Clothespin Building’ in the 1990s. I’ve lost track of it since then. Ed Duffy

  5. Ray Murphy says:

    Is it accurate that the Civic Center Museum closed in 1982? I remember going to a museum at the Civic Center on class trips until at least 1988.

    1. Edward Duffy says:

      Sorry for late response. The 1982 closure info is from a posting by the City Representative’s Office on a photo in the PhillyHistory.org collection. I checked in with a former employee at the Museum who confirms your remembrance, but could not recall the exact time of the closure.

  6. Also Davis says:

    I would also like to hear all about the B&O depot at 23rd and Chestnut, designed by Frank Furness in relation to its passenger service and use thereby.

    1. Edward Duffy says:

      My book, ‘Philadelphia – A Railroad History,’ devotes Chapter 3 to this subject and includes a photo of the depot.

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