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Philadelphia's Revived Rodin Museum

by Nancy Schneider (August, 2011)

What city isn't beautiful on a 80 degree, sunny day? But Philadelphia was particularly beautiful on this year's Bastille Day with the opening of the newly renovated and restored Rodin Museum's grounds and gardens.

Located on the city's majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and a short walk between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall, the Rodin Museum features one of the world's largest collections of works by sculptor Auguste Rodin.

This unparalleled collection of masterworks by Rodin was amassed by James Mastbaum (1872-1926), a movie theater magnate and philanthropist. The collection set in motion the creation of the museum. Park designer Jacques Greber (1882-1962) and architect Paul Cret (1876-1945), both French-born and trained in the neoclassical Beaux Arts style, skillfully realized Mastbaum's vision of a site for the display of sculpture that integrated interior and exterior, architecture and landscape at the opening in 1929. The gardens surrounding the museum are a key part of the overall experience.

Working with the Philadelphia Horticulture Society (PHS), the $4 million renovation of the gardens was conceived and overseen by OLIN, one of the country's preeminent landscape architect firms. According to Susan Weiler, an OLIN landscape architect, many elements were considered as part of the renovation, including the return to the simpler 1929 formal French plan envisioned by Jacques Greber.

The Museum Gardens take up only part of the block; however the entire block was included in the renovation and included in the concept. The north and south sides of the Parkway streetscape between 21st Street and Eakins Oval are enhanced through pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular circulation improvements. Curb extensions, or "bump outs," minimize pedestrian crossing distances, and a widened central median is created through strategic parking and traffic lane configurations. A clearly marked bicycle lane is provided, and walkways outside the garden fencing provide a meandering path under the trees along with views of the gardens through the open fencing. (Previously, shrubs blocked the views from outside and have been replaced with plantings that include native species used in the original design such as fragrant viburnum, honeysuckle, sweetshrub, summersweet, American beautyberry, sparkleberry holly, fothergilla, oak leaf hydrangea, and winter-blooming witch hazel.)

"PHS is thrilled to be part of the transformation of this most important landscape of culture and horticulture", said PHS Public Relations Manager, Allen Jaffe.

The Thinker, Rodin's most famous sculpture, sits prominently out in front at the entrance to the Gardens. Entry to the Gardens is through the stone structure known as the Meudon Gate. The gate, modeled after the 18th-century façade at Château d'Issy, which Rodin had installed at his property at Meudon, France, is a significant feature both on the grounds and as viewed from the Parkway. Re-pointing, stone repair, and cleaning with a new coating of its large French wrought-iron gates, fashioned in Paris in 1926-7 after a circa 1700 model, were completed.

Once through the Meudon Gate, one notices the three levels of the garden. The entrance level--the lower gardens--promotes the fountain as the central feature, with wide walkways for a peaceful and reflective mood.

Within the courtyard, a formal perennial garden will offer rose, day lily, iris, liatris, red-hot poker, and winter-blooming hellebore with a wide variety of fragrance and seasonal display. Color, texture and variety of plants, changing throughout the seasons, will contribute to draw visitors into the gardens year-round.

On the newly restored steps of the Museum, where the gardens are laid out before you, the reinvigorated planting schemes will be most exciting as they mature over the next few springs. Fragrant viburnum and honeysuckle will fill the air, and flowering trees like magnolias and cherries surround the site.

The interior courtyard enjoys new perennial beds that will change with the seasons. "We couldn't find any documentation of what was intended for these beds," says Allan Spulecki of OLIN, "but in looking through archives at the Athenaeum and at Penn, we found some of the original plans and correspondence associated with the project." For example, he says, Cret was quite specific about the incorporation of boxwood hedges.

"We're not trying to replicate history, but to create a design that is in keeping with a Beaux Arts garden," Spulecki continues. "It's a perennial display that's honorific and conservative to the scale of the rest of the site." At just four acres, the entire garden "doesn't require a lot, nor should it shout out," concludes Spulecki. "It should blend with the building and work with it as an ensemble."

Improvements not immediately seen are the use of all permeable materials for walkways, repair and restoration of garden walls and stairs, replacement and restoration of all bluestone and stone fine paving, and a new water-efficient irrigation system for all new planting.

The Rodin Museum Project is part of the $20 million Benjamin Franklin Parkway renovation. The PHS has a long history as the "Green Guardian" of the Parkway. In a partnership with the PHS and Fairmount Park, the Museum secured support through grants from the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The William Penn Foundation.

"This completes our goal of restoring the Rodin Museum inside and out," said Gail Harrity, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which administers the Rodin.

Nancy E. Schneider