by Ryan Caviglia
Like an elegant old lady sitting alone watching passersby, so sits Memorial Hall in Philadelphia. A graceful landmark to the extravagance of another era, this building awaits a renewed life, new uses, and a more certain future. Designed by Hermann Schwarzmann for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, this massive hall was to be the home of various types of art from portraits to sculpture in what was the first world's fair hosted by Philadelphia and the United States. The primary funder of Memorial's creation was the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which gave what was at that time a massive sum of $1.5 million toward its construction. It became another landmark in a city of great monuments to history.
Following its renown as an exhibition space, Memorial Hall served as the Philadelphia Art Museum, until that institution moved to its landmark home on the Ben Franklin Parkway in 1928. Through the 1950s, the Hall was home to the Art Museum's less important collections. Later, it was adapted for other uses.
Among other things, it served as indoor recreational space and offices. Today, the offices that govern the 9,000-plus acres of land comprising Fairmount Park hum with debate as to the future of this great landmark. The walls that surround the very administration responsible for finding new life for Memorial Hall are crumbling. In Philadelphia, which has one of the lowest funding rates of city parks of any major US city, it seems not surprising that Memorial Hall would have had such lackluster upkeep in its history.
Teresa Stillman, the Fairmount Park historic preservation officer, says that Memorial Hall faces challenges of all kinds, each costing a great deal to remedy. "The roof leaks, causing serious plaster damage, and that's been the primary concern lately." Stillman says the Fairmount Park Commission has finally found the money to remedy Memorial Hall's leaky roof; it will cost over $800,000 to do so.
Even in its tired condition, the exterior of Memorial Hall is a feast for the eyes. Because the building commands its surroundings, its presence cannot go unnoticed. Decked with the sort of ornament that graced many similar Beaux-Arts buildings of that time, Memorial Hall begs the question, "What is this place?" from virtually anyone first seeing it.
Standing atop the exterior dome is a statue depicting Columbia holding the laurel branch of glory. At the end corners of the south (main) fašade sit figures symbolizing industry and commerce. Like the faded building itself, Philadelphia has endured losses in industry and commerce over the decades. Yet that statue on top, proclaiming glory, seems to suggest that both the building and the city will continue to rise in prominence and meaning down the road. Memorial Hall, like the city it calls home, is nothing short of magnificent.
It is precisely this magnificence that demands discussion of what is to become of the building in the future. Pushing 130 years old, Memorial Hall today serves as the backdrop to weddings throughout the year, some using the massive steps as an altar and the fašade as backdrop. The grand hall, cavernous and full of opportunity, could become home to more varied and lively uses, instead of being host to occasional concerts or receptions. Stillman says that is precisely the topic of discussion the park commission is beginning to take very seriously.
That discussion has manifested itself in the form of a call for expressions of interest on the part of organizations that could see themselves calling Memorial Hall home. One of those eager institutions is the Please Touch Museum, a Philadelphia landmark in its own right, known for its interactive family-friendly exhibits. Please Touch has been trapped in a downtown space that long ago became too small for its needs, and Memorial Hall has just the right amount of space to ensure the museum can stretch out a bit, and rethink its exhibit layouts. The site would also be able to provide over 350 free parking spaces, no small advantage in the eyes of supporters.
According to Laura Foster, executive vice president of Please Touch, the museum would "take over the entire building." In accordance with standards set for designated National Historic Landmarks like Memorial, Foster said, the building would be restored and brought up to code. The project would cost about $34 million to complete, and the museum project's completion, if it is accepted as the future tenant of Memorial, to be sometime in 2006. Foster said the idea of having Please Touch locate in such an important building and be able to create more activity in the park with the nearby Philadelphia Zoo and Mann Music Center, is very exciting. It is also good for the nearby community, Parkside.
Indeed, the future of the Parkside community is one that has been the topic of much discussion in Philadelphia redevelopment and planning circles of late. This once heavily Jewish community is today mainly African American--and a National Register historic district. The community has faced great disinvestment and decline in recent decades and stands today at a crossroads where it could blossom once more, or remain inert. During the last several years, various public-private partnerships have restored splendid, massive homes facing Memorial Hall and the park. In this way, elegant buildings face one another, conjuring visions of what might be in the eyes of any urban enthusiast or visionary. Memorial Hall stands with its community awaiting something better, a prouder face and a more enlivened future.
Perhaps most inspiring is that Memorial Hall once more is seeing attention and interest from the public. Only when it shines restored will people realize just what a gem has been kept from them for so long. Whatever the reuse of Memorial Hall, the near future promises to be a very exciting one for this national landmark and integral piece of Philadelphia's urban landscape.
Ryan Caviglia is a graduate student at Temple University. He has a passion for teaching and urban studies. He lives in Philadelphia.