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Building Philadelphia: A Story of Architecture

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Building Philadelphia: A Story of Architecture

By John George Armstrong.

Philadelphia has a story to tell. Have you heard it?

Professor David Brownlee, from Penn's History of Art Department, tells the story of Philadelphia through its architecture. The various buildings in the city play the role of characters in this story, each contributing a unique vision that is reflective of the rich culture and history that surrounds them in a three-hundred-year-old setting.

As students in the Penn Art & Culture freshman seminar called “Building Philadelphia,” we were challenged by Professor Brownlee to interpret the architecture of the city and to piece together a story of their social, political, and economic impacts. The small-discussion-based seminar offered us the opportunity to learn about both the art and culture of Philadelphia in a friendly and welcoming academic environment. Thanks to the generous funding of the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund, each week we were able to visit the architectural sites we discussed.

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Our story began with William Penn’s grid plan for the city in the late seventeenth century. In sharp contrast to the winding streets of European cities such as London, an orthogonal system of streets in Philadelphia creates a distinctive grid pattern. After reading and discussing the revolutionary city planning conceived by William Penn, our class visited Old City, located on the eastern edge of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. At 2nd and Market Streets, we saw the original sites of the first City Hall and Royal Arms Tavern and visited nearby Christ Church. The original grid plan has remained as the fundamental building plan for the city, despite hundreds of years of development and social change. To our amazement, by visiting the “real” architectural environments and applying the learning from the readings and discussions, the Philadelphia story unfolded in full scale before our very eyes. 

As an introductory assignment, we examined the terracotta sunflowers that decorate the stairway piers for the Fisher Fine Arts Library on the College Green of Penn’s campus. We analyzed the shapes, textures, scales, and colors of the sunflowers on our own without the aid of outside research. The purpose of the exercise was to discuss the goal of the architect, Frank Furness, in employing this design. My examination suggested that the sunflowers welcome the students inside with three-dimensional leaves reaching beyond the frame, while maintaining order with framed symmetry in compliance with the building’s purpose.

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The eighteenth-century Georgian buildings in the Society Hill area, such as Independence Hall and the Samuel Powel House, reflect the early architecture of Philadelphia. In our small group discussions, we discussed aspects of Georgian architecture, which often include a symmetrical façade, regularly spaced rectangular windows, and a decorative cornice below the roofline. As a treat, the site manager of the Powel House, Jennifer Davidson, gave us a private interior tour, highlighting key elements such as the fragile Rococo plaster designs ornamenting the ceiling of the second-floor ballroom. Professor Brownlee whetted our architectural palettes with weekly presentations about the architects and the sociopolitical contexts of the creation and development of each site.

For our midterm project, we each undertook a site analysis on our choice of four areas in Philadelphia: New Market, Elfreth’s Alley, Washington Square, or Christ Church. Professor Brownlee encouraged us to identify the dates and styles of what we saw during our site analyses and to avoid routine discussion of the owners, architects, and residents. This proved to be a challenge because we had to use clues from historical maps and land-use surveys to describe changes over time, while avoiding mere recitation of the history of the site. My classmate, Saumya Khaitan, who studied Christ Church, shared, “It was particularly interesting to learn about the various stages it was made in and the changes that were made to it over the years.” Overall, this assignment proved to be very instructive because we did research similar to that of architectural historians by reaching conclusions based on primary source works.

Our semester consisted of many sites rich with architectural significance, including Eastern State Penitentiary, the Fairmount Water Works, the Rodin Museum, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and City Hall. At Eastern State Penitentiary, I was astounded when our professor, who was on the preservation board, told us about how they financed the restoration through the annual Halloween haunted house at the Gothic prison. Ellen Freedman Schultz, Director of Education at the Fairmount Water Works, kindly took us below the nineteenth-century buildings to see the original water wheels and the foundations. In addition, we had the extraordinary opportunity to have a personalized tour at City Hall with Greta Greenberger, the director of the building’s visitors’ center. In our class trip to the Rodin Museum, another classmate, Daniel Tuveson, was moved by the early twentieth-century modern approach to classical Greek and Roman architecture, stating, “I think the architecture of the Rodin Museum is beautiful and unlike any of the other sites we have visited.” 

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Perhaps the best form of appreciation this course has instilled in us is a keen awareness for the architecture on our very own campus, such as the Fisher Fine Arts Library. In the Architectural Archives, curator William Whitaker showed us original illustrations by Frank Furness, who expertly designed the building using varied materials and architectural styles unified by a red color. In addition, we learned about the building feats of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Richards Medical Research Laboratories. According to Ann Blair Brownlee, associate curator of the Mediterranean section at the University Museum, a technique called Guastavino construction used a single layer of thin tiles to support the massive ninety-foot diameter domes of the exhibition hall rotunda and the auditorium below it. Likewise, we met the restoration project manager Robert Angstadt, who told us that the early 1960s Richards Building celebrates the intentionally visible pre-cast concrete Vierendeel trusses whose heavy structure contrasts the seemingly feather-light International Style buildings of the era.

For our final assignment, we wrote a research paper focused on our choice of period in the city’s history. Research topics include sites like 30th Street Station, Penn buildings, and the recently constructed Barnes Foundation. My classmate, Victoria Fishman, mentioned, “I think the Quad is one of the best parts of Penn’s campus, and I have always appreciated the architecture. I thought this assignment was a great opportunity and excuse to explore my interest and learn more about the history of the Quad.”

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In the last few weeks of the semester, our story of Philadelphia continued with exciting visits to Society Hill, Dilworth Plaza, and Love Park. I was very excited to meet Inga Saffron, an architectural critic, to learn more about modern-day urban planning in the city. She offered an invaluable perspective on the city as the 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and the writer for the weekly “Changing Skyline” section of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

During our tour of Independence Hall, we learned that at the Constitutional Convention held in 1787, President George Washington’s chair featured a carved sun in a position that made it hard to determine whether it was rising or setting. On the final day of the Convention, Benjamin Franklin commented that he was confident the sun was in fact rising, given the prosperity he saw in the future for the young nation. At the conclusion of our story, I am happy to say that the sun over Philadelphia is still rising.

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John George Armstrong is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.