The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Posts Tagged ‘athenaeum

Inside Philadelphia: ‘Lobbying’ the Interiors of Washington Square

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You can’t get all of the city’s history through its outdoors. I realized this when I visited the Athenaeum, Philadelphia’s premier resource on the city’s architectural and artistic history, part library and part museum, overlooking Washington Square.

We all know that each year, tens of thousands tour the inside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, one of the city’s (and country’s) most distinguished 18th-century structures. To continue the history tour into the 19th century, it’s worth taking a peek inside the Athenaeum just a block away. It’s completely free and uncrowded — and, if you allow yourself, pretty breathtaking.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was founded in 1814. The institute has been at its present home since 1845. The exterior is in the Italianate style, while the neoclassical interior — not surprisingly for a Greek-named institute in a Greek-named city — has some nice historical flashes, particularly Corinthian pillars.

One of the reading rooms on the second floor

Plaque commemorating the dedication of the building


From the stairwell


How many other surprises can you find around here? Try the grandiose building just up the corner from this one: the former home of the Curtis Publishing Company. A monument to a time when half of all Americans read magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, this 1910 Georgian edifice still holds some tributes to the old money that built it within its doors.

The company was founded by Cyrus H.K. Curtis. His son-in-law, Edward Bok, became the most famous editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. His daughter, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founded the Curtis Institute of Music.

Few lobbies in the city rival that of the Curtis Building. It’s here that you’ll find the regal marble and Tiffany glass, the centerpiece being a 20-foot-wide mosaic called The Dream Garden.

It’s a big mosaic


There are other features, including a pretty big inner courtyard space to give yourself perspective on the scope of the building. But The Dream Garden is the big attraction, and an underutilized one — again, considering that Independence Hall is literally across the street.

The courtyard

The Curtis lobby: another angle; more Tiffany glass

One more gem, and that’s the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. Designed by the esteemed architect Horace Trumbauer, the erstwhile hotel at 9th and Chestnut now houses condos and apartments. If you’ve been there but aren’t fortunate enough to live there, chances are you went to a doctor’s office; the massive campus of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is across the street.

Even if you don’t need a prescription, the Ben Franklin’s lobby is its own excuse for a peek inside. Here’s an ex-hotel that knew not to part with its history.


Some work in progress

Try not to strain your neck

Although there is a cafe inside, there really isn’t much here that would attract visitors. Center City is realizing much of its residential boom, yet its retail potential continues to vegetate somewhat.

But things could be worse. The lobby here is in the midst of some renovation, a favorable sign, at minimum, that the glitz is being kept up. In the meantime, it remains another of the city’s best-kept secrets, which the elect few explorers can have all to themselves.