Whenever I go to another city, I always look for a museum about that city’s history. I visit these museums because I am a city planner and an architect with a strong interest in the history of cities. The few European cities I’ve visited have always had wonderful city history museums with models, historic maps, artifacts related to different periods and people, and computer or video displays that trace the city’s history and allow you to explore its form at different points in time. Philadelphia is the most historic city in the United States and it deserves to have an outstanding museum of its history.
Last summer I visited Chicago and discovered that when the city built a new main library, it converted the former library — a distinctive historic building with wonderful glass domes — into the Chicago Cultural Center, a place for exhibits, performances, and offices of many cultural organizations.
I thought of this last week when I learned that the Philadelphia History Museum has closed for good. Established by a 1938 ordinance, the museum is mandated by the city charter to serve as a repository of things made in, owned by, and associated with the city. The museum is currently in talks that would see the massive collection transferred to the stewardship of Drexel University, where officials envision the collection being scattered throughout the city at the homes of residents, businesses, neighborhood schools, libraries, and even shopping malls.
There would be no “history museum” as a stand-alone structure. I think this would be a missed opportunity.
The perfect place for such a museum is the former Family Court Building on Logan Square. The building is in public ownership, is currently vacant, and has wonderful and ornate rooms on the first floor that are historically protected and deserve to be open to the public. Although there are plans for the building to become a boutique hotel, the project has been delayed since the contract was awarded to Peebles Corp. in 2014. A far more appropriate use for this wonderful historic building would be a center for history and culture.
The building would provide ample space for a larger display of the Philadelphia History Museum’s collection. While that might be the central feature and public attraction, it would probably not be enough to fill the entire building.
The upper floors are simply office space and would be suitable for nonprofit organizations, or perhaps even public agencies whose mission is preserving and interpreting the history and cultural life of the city. The Association for Public Art, the Preservation Alliance, and Partners for Sacred Spaces, for example, would be appropriate tenants and are all renting space in private office buildings now. So would cultural organizations, such as the Cultural Alliance and even the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.
The center could be a place where the wonderful films on the history of Philadelphia made by Sam Katz’s organization, History Making Productions, could be shown with special exhibits drawn from the museum’s collection linked to the films.
The Free Library could move its collection of books on the history of Philadelphia into the building, and perhaps even its archives of historic maps and photographs, thereby providing space for expansion of other functions in the main library building. Perhaps there could even be a film showing the evolution of Philadelphia from when it was home to Native Americans to today, like that great film of Manhattan island that shows it going from forest to the city New York is now.
Such a center would be a wonderful additional attraction for visitors along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as well as a great resource for residents of the city. It would not preclude digitizing the collection or lending pieces to other places as a means of promoting interest in the museum. But it would be far more interesting to be able to actually see, smell, and even touch the objects that have contributed to the history and culture of the city than to simply view them on my computer screen.
Is this a crazy idea? Yes. Is it too ambitious? Definitely. Would it be expensive? Probably. But is it still worth exploring? I think so.
Philadelphia deserves a great museum of the history of the city and the former Family Court Building would be the perfect place. Having such a facility managed by a great institution such as Drexel University would be a great gift. Let’s make it happen.
John Andrew Gallery was formerly executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. He is the author of Philadelphia Architecture, A Guide to the City, now in its 4th edition.