Updated: Sunday, August 25, 2013, 1:09 AM
Ben Franklin was a great and fearless tinkerer, but even he might have been reluctant to mess with the Old City architectural icon that honors his life and work. The deceptively modest Franklin Court complex was designed by world-famous Robert Venturi for the 1976 Bicentennial, and it changed the way we think about memorials. No wonder the decision by the National Park Service to alter the garden wall and gut the underground museum produced a flood of protest from architectural scholars.
The historic site reopened last week, after three years of planning, construction, and dire warnings of architectural Armageddon. Just as the experts predicted, everything is different. But different is also better.
Actually, much that is important remains. The court's famous landscape, with its 3D outlines of Franklin's house and print shop, still looks as it did during the Bicentennial. All of Venturi's symbol-rich touchstones have been preserved and spruced up: the steel Ghost House, the colonial fence posts, the arbor and the spreading mulberry tree evoking Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom paintings. Only a sextet of dwarf cherry trees in the formal garden was lost, victims of age.
What has been radically altered is the west wall of the courtyard, which also happens to be the portal into the subterranean Benjamin Franklin Museum. For the Bicentennial project, Venturi (then operating as Venturi & Rauch) envisioned the brick wall as one facade of a colonial-era food hall, shaded by a canvas awning - a reference to the bustling headhouse that once existed a few steps away on Market Street. You entered the museum through a small set of doors and proceeded down a long ramp to the exhibits.
With its period imagery, the brick wall provided a masterly counterpoint to the industrial steel that outlines the lost colonial house and shop. Venturi's braiding of past and present lovingly conveyed the continuity of Philadelphia life through the centuries.
But a solid wall does not make for a particularly welcoming museum entrance, especially when that museum happens to be buried underground. Over time, as the Bicentennial hype faded in memory, people forgot there were exhibits down there. Attendance plummeted.
The goal of the $24 million renovation - and the source of all the controversy - was to break through the wall and give visitors a glimpse of what lies below.
In embarking on the delicate task of renovating the building, the park service's architects, Quinn Evans of Washington, must have experienced some of the same trepidation that Franklin felt when he sent his kite into the lightning storm. It was more likely, though, that they would end up as burnt toast than acclaimed geniuses.
After releasing an early version of their design in 2010, the firm was harshly criticized by Venturi and his partner, Denise Scott Brown. Preservationists from around the world started a campaign aimed at stopping the perceived sacrilege. Ultimately, Venturi and Scott Brown were allowed to weigh in, and their suggestions were incorporated into a revised design.
The result is an elegant entry that welcomes visitors far more graciously than the original Venturi version did, even while it deftly pays homage to his market hall concept.
Quinn Evans restyled the facade in a modern vernacular. Round steel columns replace Venturi's turned-wood posts. Glass bricks stand in for the red-clay kind. Some feared the slick, modern materials would bring a whiff of corporateness to the museum, but Quinn Evans architect Carl Elefante has executed the assignment with Venturi-esque playfulness.
Venturi is famous for playing tricks with scale, and Elefante does the same. At the entrance, giant glass bricks are arranged in a Flemish bond pattern, a colonial favorite that alternates the short and long sides of the bricks. Each glass brick has been etched with an abstract image of the real thing and set in a shelf, giving them depth and dimension.
A new light
The new facade, which pushes beyond the plane of the old brick wall, allowed the architects to create a real lobby inside the building. Instead of a long walk down a dark and dank ramp, there is now a generous, well-lighted staircase. Once downstairs, the path through the exhibits is easy to follow.
The museum, which is blessedly compact, consists of five open-plan rooms, each focused on a different theme. The exhibits, by CassonMann, bring Franklin alive in a way the previous one never did. The exhibits have been updated with real content and now include a rich collection of original objects, from Franklin's cereal bowl to his chess set and the ink balls he used in his printing house.
The improvements did not come cheap. The park service probably wouldn't have undertaken the renovation if a group of Philadelphia foundations had not contributed nearly half the renovation cost.
Independence National Historical Park, which runs the museum, has been severely hurt by federal cutbacks, particularly from the sequester. Even while Franklin Court has been given the glam treatment, four other small museums remain shut - including the Market Street house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Passing by, you might mistake it for an abandoned property. Meanwhile, the park is now forced to charge for the Franklin Museum - $5 for adults, $2 for children - although it insists on calling it an "interpretative fee" rather than admission.
In the end, the budget ensured that both Franklin's memory and Venturi's iconic design were well-treated. Quinn Evans saves the best moment for last. As you ascend the exit stairs and step into the lobby, you encounter a large window, which provides the perfect frame to admire the Ghost House.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or email@example.com, follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.
Read full story: Changing Skyline: An elegant redesign for Ben Franklin - and Venturi