Philadelphia’s nearly century-old Benjamin Franklin Parkway is something of a late bloomer.
Modeled on Paris’ Champs-Elysees, the wide, tree-lined boulevard breaks up Philly’s 18th century grid of narrow streets to cut a dramatic diagonal linking City Hall and the downtown with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmount Park.
Along this spine are some of the city’s great cultural institutions, such as The Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum and the Free Library’s Central Library, but few of the shops, restaurants and cafes that give life to its Parisian counterpart.
The May, 2012, opening of the Barnes Foundation’s $150 million museum for its renowned collection of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early Modern works, and other developments, offer compelling new reasons to come to the parkway and stay a while.
Sidewalks have been widened, and bike lanes painted a vibrant green. Sister Cities Park, until recently an unkempt gathering spot for the homeless, has been reimagined with a cafe, boat pond and spray fountain. The Academy of the Natural Sciences, which recently affiliated with Drexel University, is marking its 200th year, and the nearby Franklin Institute is hosting “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” featuring 20 scrolls depicting the oldest known versions of the Hebrew Bible and four scrolls that have never been displayed before this exhibition.
And on July 13, the Rodin Museum, which houses the single biggest grouping of the sculptor’s work outside of Paris, will reopen, following a thorough renovation of the building. The jewel-box-museum, which is free, has been renovated to bring its 1929 building to its original glory. The restored garden is already open to the public, and features several Rodin masterpieces, including The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais.
As a result, a leisurely stroll up the parkway from John F. Kennedy Plaza, known by locals as Love Park for its iconic sculpture by Robert Indiana, offers a more engaging ramble along the 15 blocks to the Art Museum at its western end.
I suggest budgeting a morning or afternoon for a visit to the Barnes, which has long been one of the Philadelphia area’s best-kept museum secrets, and building your parkway visit from there.
Formerly located in the Main Line suburb of Merion, the Barnes possesses an eye-popping trove of more than 600 paintings by European and American greats, with concentrations of Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Renoir. The latter is represented by 181 works, the most in any place, and the eclectic holdings also span dozens of Old Master paintings, African sculpture and Native American jewelry and ceramics.
At its original location, the Barnes maintained limited hours because of its site in a residential neighborhood and frequently was booked for months in advance. The building also had fallen into disrepair and lacked the proper climate controls for the delicate paintings, prompting its controversial move that was documented in the 2009 film The Art of the Steal.
Although something of the experience has been lost by not having to make a special trip to Merion, a key aspect –– the quirky presentation of the art itself –– is virtually the same, but with much better lighting.
Barnes’ “more is more” style of grouping together paintings in “ensembles” without regard period or media has been recreated in the new facility designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
You might find a Renoir paired with a Venetian painting by Tintoretto, accessorized by hinges, tools and other objects, and paired with African masks, Pennsylvania German chests and decorative pieces.
Imagine your living room crammed with dozens of masterpieces, and then multiply that by two dozen or so rooms and you get some some sense of the wow factor of the Barnes. Aside from small tags on some paintings, the works are not labeled, with information about them presented on booklets stored in benches in each gallery.
The resulting experience is like few other museums, with the original building’s intimate scale, room sizes and window placements maintained as a separate wing in the new contemporary facility. The architects are able to tap new technology that emits light but not heat through glass to keep the windows mostly uncovered, vastly improving the views of the paintings.
Seeing the collection in its new home produced the same thrill –– and sense of exhaustion –– as in its original space. At the new Barnes, there are opportunities to step back from the experience by partaking in amenities lacking in the old. You can have an espresso in the cafe, lunch al fresco in the restaurant, relax in a lower level lounge, and browse the library and gift shop.
Before or after your Barnes’ immersion, the parkway boasts some of the city’s most beautiful outdoor spaces. These range from the majestic Swann Memorial Fountain, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder surrounded by blooming annuals and perennials that anchors Logan Circle just east of the Barnes, to the manicured gardens outside the Rodin Museum, to the brand new Sister Cities Park.
Although you’ll always have Paris, you can now feel a little continental in Philly, too.