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

I’m often asked to describe Classicizing Philadelphia, and my answer usually includes three pairs of epithets:  Classicizing Philadelphia is a classical reception, digital humanities, public history project.  Then, especially if my interlocutor is from outside the fairly small world of classical scholarship, I have to explain what “classical reception” is.  Most people are familiar with the idea of “classical influence.”  In that model, ancient Greece and Rome provided patterns, models, or first examples of important things–democracy, theater, the mixed constitution, science, literature–which later societies imitated and developed.  The traffic is one-way, like a lecture:  the ancient world speaks, and later cultures take notes.

Classical reception is in some ways describing the same phenomenon, but it adds a voice.  If classical influence is our classical forebears talking to us, classical reception is us talking with them.  It’s a conversation, not a lecture.

In a conversation, both sides listen, learn, and change.  The reception model of thinking about our engagement with ancient Greece and Rome imagines that engagement as a two-way process:  we study and think about these cultures and their products, and our study and thought changes who we are and what we do; at the same time, by studying and thinking about Greece and Rome, we are creating our concept of those cultures.  Since ancient Greece and Rome exist only as concepts or mental constructions–even an ancient ruin or artifact has to have a meaning before we can think about or with it–we are in effect changing what the ancient world means as we think about it.

That process of working out what the ancient world means here and now is classical reception.  It is our conversation with Greece and Rome.  Just as lectures have their place, so the influence model of our relationship to Greece and Rome can provide valuable insights and understanding.  But many of us would rather participate in a conversation than attend a lecture.

Once upon a time I had a Facebook account, but I shut it down as a waste of time; this afternoon, though, I set up a Twitter account for Classicizing Philadelphia: @classicizephila.  If Classicizing Philadelphia is serious about being a public history project, as well as a digital humanities project, then we’ll have to find ways to tell people about Philadelphia’s long conversation with Greece in Rome—even if we have to do it 140 characters at a time.

In 2014 Classicizing Philadelphia continued to evolve.  The public face of the project now consists of two sites, entered by the gateway at classicizingphiladelphia.org:  this blog, and the main content site at classicizingphiladelphia.omeka.net.  Soon there will be a third piece, a mobile tour developed with the assistance of Interactive Mechanics and the generous support of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.  Thanks to these and other partners and supporters, including Bryn Mawr College and ARTstorClassicizing Philadelphia has moved in twelve months from plan to fledgling reality.

This is a beginning, but set against the extent and richness of Philadelphia’s long engagement with Greece and Rome, it is a very small beginning indeed.  Classicizing Philadelphia needs your help in telling the story of Philadelphia’s long conversation with classical antiquity.  If you are interested in developing content for the main content site or the mobile tour app, if your academic research or teaching focus on classical reception or Philadelphia history, or if you see another way that you might be part of Classicizing Philadelphia, please contact me at classicizingphiladelphia(at)gmail.com.

Lee T. Pearcy
Director, Classicizing Philadelphia

 

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