In my last post, I promised to say something about “vernacular classicism.”  By that I meant receptions of ancient Greece and Rome by people other than the elite in a society.  If Classicizing Philadelphia doesn’t include those non-elite receptions, it will be just another exercise in prosing on about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.  People will nod politely and go about their business, and they will continue to assume that Greece and Rome are somehow the cultural property of the elite.

But who is elite?  And who isn’t?  Defining “elite” and “non-elite” turns out to be a difficult business.  Using a criterion like income, it’s not hard to distinguish extremes—but where do we draw the boundary?  (Usually, somewhere just above where we think we are.)  How do we take account of power or influence that isn’t correlated with high income?

The best I can do at this point is offer a typology with examples.  It’s crude and empirical, but at least it’s a start toward understanding what I mean by “vernacular classicism.”

1.  Elite receptions for non-elite users.  In Philadelphia, think of Horace Trumbauer’s pair of neo-classical public buildings on Logan Circle: the Free Library and former Family Court Building.  Trumbauer built his practice on the patronage of the Philadelphia’s elite and designed mansions for them, including the Widener and Elkins families.  Peter A. B. Widener, then vice-chair of the Free Library’s directors, was instrumental in commissioning Trumbauer to design the library’s building.  From its opening, the building was seen as an icon of culture.  A local newspaper saw its function:  “The building at Logan Circle is far more than a book storage, to which the public can go to read and borrow. It has unique facilities for the spread of culture. Properly supported, it will perform service of incalculable value.”

2.  Non-elite receptions for elite users.  This is the first category from the other side—the Free Library as seen by a draftsman in Trumbauer’s office.  It’s easiest to recognize in the work of painters, who often (but not always) belong to a non-elite stratum of society but who control the content and execution of the work they do for elite patrons.  John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) came from a family of artisan painters; his father was a dealer in art supplies.  If Aaron Burr had not noticed him, he might have remained in obscurity in upstate New York; instead, his neo-classical and academic paintings, like Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos at PAFA, earned him fame and the patronage of nineteenth-century elites in government and art.

3.  Non-elite receptions for non-elite users.  These are in some ways the most interesting and the hardest to document, especially in the 2000mummers36historical record.  Any street of row houses in North or West or South Philadelphia will have porches or entryways whose paired, Doric or Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment.  These are the work of journeyman architects or builders working from pattern books, and their names are hard to find—but they reflect someone’s taste.  Hardly a Mummers’ Parade goes by without at least one string band riffing on Rome or ancient Greece.  In nineteenth-century Philadelphia, middle- and upper-class patrons streamed to the elite Arch Street, Chestnut Street, and Walnut Street Theaters to enjoy divas like Adeleide Ristori in the title role of Ernst Legouvé’s Medea, but in 1870 Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels could draw a crowd to their theater at 47-49 North Seventh Street for a skit called “Medea, or Ristori Restored.”  This non-elite reception has left no trace except for a tiny ad in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph.

That’s why the work being done at Monument Lab during these past three weeks has been important.  It democratizes the process of monument making; in my typology, it moves it from category one or two to category three.  Can the result be a monument that includes and continues Philadelphia’s non-elite receptions of Greece and Rome?

On a recent visit to Monument Lab, the public art project and installation in City Hall’s courtyard, I realized that Classicizing Philadelphia faces a problem.  This project imagines classical reception as a long conversation with Greece and Rome.  Documenting and studying that conversation in Philadelphia are two important pieces of Classicizing Philadelphia’s mission.  Continuing the conversation is a third goal, no less important than the first two.  Monument Lab ought to be a natural venue for engaging Philadelphians in that conversation, and for listening to our ideas on it.  What could be more monumental than Greece and Rome?  What vocabulary has been more natural to monument-making than classical architecture, or bronze statues, or marble inscribed with classical languages?

Second Bank of the United States, 4th & Chestnut

Second Bank of the United States, 4th & Chestnut

SONY DSCSt Patrick inscr

 

 

That’s just the problem.  Few people engage the classical world in conversation any more.  Classicism and its monuments seem to reflect the values and monuments of an elite.  The conversation with Greece and Rome belongs, it seems, to the past, and to the people who imagined the Second Bank, or the statue of McClellan next to City Hall, or the Latin inscriptions that are in every sense over people’s heads on Philadelphia streets.

Monument Lab invites a different kind of dialogue: what do we want to say about who we are now?  As their guiding question puts it, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”  When I visited Monument Lab, the poet Tom Devaney invited us to look at City Hall’s columned, pedimented façade.  Underneath that veneer, he reminded us, were hundreds of thousands of bricks, each one made by someone.  (He has good ideas about bricks.)  A monument for 21st century Philadelphia, he suggested, should look beneath the classical veneer to the core underneath, and the work of the people who made it.  The current city of Philadelphia wants to remember itself as a city made not only by a classically minded elite, but also by the people who made the bricks in City Hall.

Yet Philadelphia has a tradition of vernacular classicism.  The people who made the bricks have been part of the conversation with Greece and Rome.  In my next post, I hope to say something about their part of the conversation.  In the meantime, I’ll be back at Monument Lab.  Don’t miss it in City Hall courtyard until June 7.

I’m not much of a hand at writing press releases, but the prototype mobile tour that we’ve just finished seemed to need one:

 

Classicizing Philadelphia announces the release of a mobile tour of classically themed sites in Philadelphia. The tour can be accessed on mobile devices (smartphones and iPads or similar tablet computers) by directing an Internet browser to

classicizingphiladelphia.org/mobile

The mobile tour guides users around a group of important buildings within a few blocks of Independence Hall that reveal ways in which architects from the 1790s until the Civil War used elements of classical Greek and Roman architecture to house the institutions of a growing nation. Classicizing Philadelphia plans to develop a series of mobile tours and customizable tour stops documenting Philadelphia’s long engagement with Greece and Rome.

Classicizing Philadelphia is a digital humanities and public history project based at Bryn Mawr College and supported by the Classical Association of the Atlantic States. It seeks to document, study, and continue Philadelphia’s long conversation with ancient Greece and Rome. Technical development is provided by Interactive Mechanics. Content for the prototype mobile tour was created by Classicizing Philadelphia project director Lee Pearcy and Bryn Mawr graduate student Megan Dickman.

Further information: classicizingphiladelphia.org or e-mail lpearcy@brynmawr.edu

Philadelphia has many more elegant and better situated neoclassical buildings than 30th Street Station.  From the outside, the station is basically a rectangular box with a Corinthian portico tacked on at either end, flanked by wings whose plain, Depression-era pilasters look as though they belong to a different building altogether. It is hemmed in by a river, parking lots, and the Schuylkill Expressway. But to someone arriving by train from another city, the inside of the central box—the great, golden space that opens up at the top of the escalator—offers one of Philadelphia’s best welcomes and is certainly an improvement over the airport of hell known as Penn Station in New York.

220px-Amtrak30thStreetStationInterior2007

In September Philadelphia will welcome Pope Francis, and then the Democratic national convention comes to town in July 2016.  It’s time to get the magazines off the coffee table and polish the silver.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Senator Bob Casey (D. Pennsylvania) has urged Joseph Boardman, president of Amtrak, “to put into motion a plan for revitalization of the station’s interior.”  Gerard Sweeney, the head of Brandywine Realty Trust, is somehow part of this conversation.  Brandywine, whose elegant Cira Center skyscrapers flank the station, is working with Drexel University to develop plans for the area around the station, and Sweeney would welcome a makeover of 30th Street’s interior: high-end retail, better signage and lighting, renovated waiting areas, and so on.

These are all good ideas (although I hope they keep the long wooden pews in the main waiting room–some of my best ideas have come while I was sitting on them).  More needs to happen, though.  The interior is the glamorous space, but the station’s exterior, like a neglected stepchild, also needs attention, as reported here.  Private money like Brandywine’s, or even public-private partnerships, understandably focus on high-impact, profit-producing spaces.  Exterior stabilization and repair of an eighty-five year old building are a harder sell.  This is where public funding plays an essential role, and Sen. Casey should focus his efforts on securing federal money for necessary work to Amtrak’s third-busiest station.  Amtrak and Brandywine can find a way to polish the silver and tidy up the living room.  Congress needs to step up and take care of the outside of Philadelphia’s great neo-classical gateway.

The Franklin Institute, whose Corinthian portico and pilastered wings, designed by John T. Windrim in the 1930s, overlook Logan Square and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, wants to replace a low-tech billboard in front of its main entrance with a digital sign.  Predictably, neighbors and preservationists are up in arms.  The sign, opponents claim, will distract motorists and challenge pedestrians at an already dangerous intersection, be a flashing blight on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Philadelphia’s version of the Champs-Élysées)–and pretty soon everyone will want one, and the Parkway will coruscate like Times Square.  The Franklin Institute responds that it’s a very small sign, really, and there’s already a non-digital one in place.  (There’s also a controversy as to whether opponents of the sign have legal standing to take the Institute to court, but I’m not competent to comment on that issue–more here and here.)

One question, though, is not being asked:  What effect will a digital sign have on the building behind it?  Classical and neoclassical architecture is alive.  Its rhythmic alternation of space and volume and its play of light and shadow invite careful, quiet attention–even contemplation.  To move around or through such a building evokes a response–not the “oh wow look at that” response that, say, the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House tend to evoke, but the kind of response that comes from taking a series of deep breaths.  Once years ago, after a long day of meetings in Washington, I stopped on the way to Union Station and walked along the main axis of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, not really looking at the paintings but simply feeling the alternation of rectangular and round spaces and light and shadow.  At the end of my five-minute stroll, all the day’s stress and tension had left me.

So it’s worth asking:  will a blinking digital billboard make it impossible for the Franklin Institute’s building to do what John Windrim wanted it to do?

Lee T. Pearcy
Director, Classicizing Philadelphia

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