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Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Art Museum's 'Waiting Room'

On Rittenhouse Square?

By Richard Carreño

An aged friend remembers his grandmother, a Rittenhouse Square resident, telling him how she used to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art when it was located on the Square. Huh? The Art Museum on the Square?

My friend's grandmother was just being cheeky, of course. And right!

Though it seems to have been around forever, the behemoth -- and majestic -- Art Museum is, as such institutions go, a relative newcomer. In contrast to the Met in New York (unarguably the Art Museum's sister institution for its size, stature, and international prominence and on Fifth Avenue since 1880), the Art Museum only just celebrated its 80th year. And even then, when the building 'officially' opened on March 26, 1928, bookending the Parkway with Logan Square, the structure was hardly fully completed.

That it was finished at all can be largely attributed John F. McFadden, a little-known, 19th-century cotton king from Philadelphia. And that it was stocked with much of its world-class core collection can also be attributed to McFadden, who, besides his fame as a cotton trader, was also one of America's premier collectors of British art. And a Rittenhouse Square resident.

And that's how my friend's cheeky grandmother got to know the Art Museum on the Square. Thanks to McFadden -- and his daughter Alice.

McFadden looked the part of art patron. In photographs, he's rotund, fleshy, mustachioed, with a stickpin in his necktie and a rose boutonnière in his coat collar. Despite this Robber Baron look, McFadden was hardly one. Unlike many of his gilt-edged contemporaries, he was truly philanthropic. While living large in London, where, along with Philadelphia, his cotton empire was based, he expanded his interests beyond art to science and medicine.

Besides the Art Museum, his eleemosynary pursuits included the eponymous McFadden Research Fund at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine in London, and, in Philadelphia, Jefferson Hospital and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1914, he also financed the trans-artic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

What was also most remarkable about McFadden -- more in line with later-day 20th century philanthropists than those of his own socially-stratified era -- was that he believed art belong to the people. And he made good on that belief -- by building on Rittenhouse Square what became a veritable waiting room to the still-unbuilt Art Museum.

That early 'Art Museum' was the 14-story Wellington building, now the 15-story high-rise that still sits at the corner of 19th Street at the Square.

McFadden had, at first, ensconced his multi-million-dollar collection of works by Constable, Lawrence, Raeburn. and Stubbs, in a townhouse at the same location. In 1916, he demolished the mansion, and started construction of The Wellington, one of few 'towers' on the Square. When completed, McFadden occupied the top two floors of the new building, and faithfully reproduced the rooms in his former mansion where his collection was formerly hung.

It was there on the 14th floor, a site, according to newspaper reports at the time, well 'above the city dust line, and where there was no possibility of light being cut off by buildings,' that a significant part of the Art Museum was born. It was also there where McFadden opened his collection to the public each Wednesday and where his daughter Alice served tea to all comers.

McFadden's private gallery, according to Richard Dorment, a former Museum curator who has written on the McFadden Collection, 'inevitably encouraged Philadelphians in their plans to build a city art museum.'

But with a catch.

Despite his fondness for his personal salon, McFadden was determined that his collection be not only encouragement in building the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but a catalyst. This catalyst was an 'or-else' clause in his bequest to the still nascent Art Museum. When he died in 1921 at 77 or 78 (different birth dates are cited), McFadden's Will challenged the city to build a fitting structure with seven years, or else -- or else, he ordained, the entire collection would go to the Met.

What's left of McFadden's early version of the Art Museum is still visible by looking up, which I often do as I past Walnut and 19th. Even inside, in a 2,500 square, three-bedroom on the 14th floor, according to The Wellington's current management, something is left of that era -- 12-feet-high rooms with what might still be original marble floors. Monthly rent, $3,500. Bare walls included.
(This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 number of Rittenhouse Magazine).