Unless you’re heading to a show at the Tower Theater, art is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about 69th Street. Although Upper Darby has recently shown signs of a burgeoning arts community with The Upper Darby Art Gallery opening last year and another on the way in the township’s Highland Park neighborhood, 69th Street’s Art Deco buildings are predominantly filled with big box chain stores and a smattering of local food joints. However, for a brief moment in the 1930s, 69th Street was home to several world class art exhibitions freely accessible to the general public.
In the 1920s things were just getting started on 69th Street. Developer John H. McClatchy began purchasing land along the Cobbs Creek border from the estate of Thomas H. Powers. McClatchy initially built a few large suburban style homes, but they were slow to sell, so in the mid-1920s he changed tactics. McClatchy built a series of uniquely styled row houses in his new Stonehurst development and promoted it as a new Philadelphia neighborhood, matching street names to their Philly geographic correlatives and marketing several of his holdings as West Philadelphia. At the same time, McClatchy was building a new retail district along 69th Street, drawing such well known Philadelphia businesses as Lit Brothers and Blauner’s. A 1931 advertisement claimed the street that had “changed the shopping habits of Philadelphia.” Drawing on both its proximity to public transit, but also the boulevard design and free parking garages that accommodated drivers, 69th Street grew to become the second busiest shopping district outside of Center City.
The shopping district was complemented by venues like the Tower Theater, which opened in 1928 as a vaudeville movie theater, and the 69th Street Arts and Crafts Center, a community space which hosted local artists, the Delaware County Orchestra, and other events. In 1931, the space would be transformed into an experiment that would quickly fall victim to its own success.
The Carnegie Corporation, the philanthropic legacy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, had been successful in funding hundreds of libraries in communities throughout the United States. In Philadelphia, the Carnegie Corporation was responsible for building 25 neighborhood branch libraries, providing access to books, programs and classes to cardholders far from the Central Branch. The branch library model was so successful that Carnegie officials floated the idea that a similar branch system might work for art museums. With a $50,000 grant, Carnegie chose the Philadelphia Museum of Art, then called the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, for a five year test case for a branch museum. Several Philadelphia neighborhood locations were considered, but none had a booster, or offered up significant funds, like Upper Darby. McClatchy ponied up $30,000 beyond the Carnegie Foundations’ $50,000, and with that the Community Arts Center at 76 South 69th Street would be transformed into the 69th Street Branch of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (PMA).
The inaugural show opened in January 1931 to much regional and national attention. It featured a collection of American masterworks from the PMA. The initial plan was to have a new exhibit each month, featuring works not only from the PMA, but curated exhibits drawn from other museums and personal collections. Heading the branch museum was Philip Youtz, a Massachusetts native who began his career as an architect. Youtz was an advocate of the idea that art museums should co-exist with retail space to reach viewers who might not ordinarily visit an art museum. Youtz felt art appreciation was typically taught in a sterile, idolatrous pedagogy that largely excluded all but a wealthy elite who had the means and leisure to study art and ignored what he termed the “vital social connection of art.” Youtz was a fitting choice to head the 69th Street Branch, which was frequented not only by art connoisseurs, but thousands of causal viewers stopping in during shopping trips or following a movie. The 69th Street Branch was open until 10pm most nights, was free of charge, and offered free art classes on the weekends.
The first year exhibits at the 69th Street Branch included Early American arts and crafts, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art student paintings, and ancient Chinese art. The range of works shows how the branch concept toed the line between museum and local gallery. During its run, the 69th Street Branch Museum would host the art of Philadelphia schoolchildren, remain a rehearsal space for the Delaware County Orchestra, yet also feature an exhibit of Diego Rivera’s works, which prompted the famed Mexican artist to visit the branch and attend a dinner in his honor. Each new exhibition opening was accompanied by a free lecture on the works from various PMA-affiliated lecturers including Beaumont Newhall and Stewart Dick. Youtz kept a daily attendance journal in which he recorded visitor numbers, observations, and the feedback of attendees from which he on occasion made adjustments like adding narrative labels to the works.
The goal of the 69th Street Branch was to bring art to people where they lived and shopped, and it was a resounding success. For most of its existence, the satellite museum was the second-most attended museum in the region after the PMA on the Parkway. However, the branch’s success in numbers was built on a model which didn’t generate income and was expensive to operate. Despite the Carnegie Foundation’s grant and McClatchy’s donation, the cost of insuring the works, as well as the costs to borrow some of the exhibition materials from other museums and collections, exceeded the available funding. By May 1932, Youtz was sending letters to utility companies and insurers stating the museum was out of funds. The short-lived experiment ended in October 1932 when the last exhibition was packed up and sent back to the Parkway, with the goal of returning to Upper Darby once more funding could be secured, but the Great Depression prevented that from happening. The PMA was allowed to keep what grant money remained provided it hosted a similar gallery at the main branch, which it did for the remainder of the five-year Carnegie grant. Youtz found that hosting a gallery in the PMA was not the same as curating his own branch and he soon left Philadelphia for the Brooklyn Museum of Art which he headed from 1934 to 1938 and oversaw the Public Works Administration’s renovation of the building.
The Tudor-inspired Community Arts Center building was torn down in the ensuing years, replaced by a generic strip mall-style structure which currently houses a chain retail business. Although the branch museum was never rekindled, art work from PMA briefly returned to 69th Street, albeit in replica form, in 2016 as part of the museum’s “Inside Out” exhibition. Moreover, events like Philadelphia’s First Fridays, programing like the Upper Darby Art Gallery’s free art classes for children, not to mention the growth of art shows in libraries and coffee shops, continue the spirit of the 69th Street Branch’s mission of bringing art to people where they live, work, and play.