Museum of the American Revolution's building at odds with revolutionary content

A view of the Museum of the American Revolution from the Society Hill Hotel in Philadelphia, PA on April 11, 2017.

The story the Museum of the American Revolution tells is a refreshingly inclusive one. Inspired by the same thinking that informed the hit musical Hamilton, the museum deepens the oft-told history of our nation’s birth by bringing to life the ordinary people who participated in the great American experiment. Enslaved Africans, American Indians, and women are all given their due in its vivid displays.

But at some point during the decade-long process of creating this progressive little museum, the goals of its historian-curators and its architects diverged in a big way. In contrast to the narrative established by the exhibits, the building is overblown in scale, false in its approach to architecture, and stridently conservative in appearance. If architecture today is a means of telegraphing your brand, the design of Philadelphia’s newest museum amounts to a major communications misfire.

The museum board certainly knew what it was getting into when it hired Robert A.M. Stern as its architect. His firm has made a profitable business out of producing stylized modern interpretations of historic architecture. Philadelphia, unfortunately, has been an all-too-welcoming locale for the firm's retrograde designs. See the meetinghouse next to the new Mormon Temple, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies on 34th Street, or 10 Rittenhouse.

The revolution museum at Third and Chestnut is no less stodgy. The boxy redbrick structure is meant to be an updated take on the Georgian style, so named because it originated during the reign of the British monarchs who ruled the colonies in the lead-up to the revolution. Independence Hall, that great symbol of American democracy, is a Georgian building, as are most of the city’s important Colonial buildings.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A visitor to the Museum of the American Revolution walks up the large sprial staircase to the second floor galleries.

One of the characteristics of real Georgian buildings is that they are small and intimate. But the Revolution museum suffers from the same affliction that has plagued the last several museums to have opened in Philadelphia: giganticism.

Though the three-story Revolution museum contains a total of 118,000 square feet of space, a mere 32, 000 of that is devoted to exhibit galleries and interpretative theaters. Like the National Constitution Center and the National Museum of American Jewish History, the building feels like a sprawling banquet hall that happens to operate a small museum.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A view of the grand staircase from the ground floor of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

You sense the bigness the moment you walk into the main lobby. Designed in a relatively subdued fashion that might be called Stripped-Down Georgian, it could be the lobby of an affluent suburban high school. The large open space is backstopped by a ticket desk and flows into another sizable room, this one dominated by a large curved staircase. Even when these rooms are eventually filled with noisy schoolchildren, I suspect there will still be plenty of acreage left over.

The two rooms may have been designed to move crowds of exhibitgoers, but the museum board also expects these lobbies to double as party spaces that can be rented out for weddings, receptions, and other revenue-generating events. The floor plan revolves around a purpose-built event space on the third floor, a massive, double-height room that features spectacular city views from its terraces.

These days, no museum gets designed without such rooms. Although the $120 million Revolution museum is starting out with no debt and a sizable endowment (thanks in part to a $63 million gift from philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a former Inquirer owner), the institution still needs to generate money to keep up its massive property. A big chunk of the sprawling office suite on the third floor is dedicated to the fund-raising and membership departments. Imagine if they had used the ample budget to install the  museum's exhibits in one of Independence National Park's deteriorating historic buildings, like the First Bank of the United States on Third Street.

So where is the actual museum in this giant new building?, you might wonder.

The main galleries are all clustered on the second floor. If you take the curving staircase, rather than the elevators, you arrive at another massively scaled room -- more party space! -- that leads to a sequence of exhibition rooms. Though the oddly old-fashioned staircase seems better suited to a McMansion than a history museum, the pathways through the galleries are clear and logical. That is no small thing.  

You conclude your journey with a visit to an intimate (relatively speaking) theater where viewers are offered a glimpse of the museum’s prize piece, the scallop-edged tent from which George Washington plotted his war strategy. Glimpse is the operative word here as the tent comes into view only for a minute or two, then is submerged in darkness to preserve its delicate fabric.  

The architectural team, led by Alexander P. Lamis, insist they settled on the Georgian style to help the museum fit its surroundings in the middle of the historic area. Yet, you can find examples of Greek Revival temples, mid-19th-century Italianate mercantile buildings, art deco -- not to mention several crisp modernist offices -- within half a block of the museum.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Exterior of the Museum of the American Revolution.

Given that we fought a bitter and protracted war to free ourselves from the Georgian tyranny, how is it that Philadelphia had to end up with this retro-monster? Philadelphia seems unnaturally drawn to backward-looking architecture. The city's two newest civic buildings, the museum and the Mormon Temple, were both designed to mimic historic architecture. Few other American cities cling so stubbornly to an anti-modern view of the world.

We can be grateful, at least, that Stern’s firm has embraced a more up-to-date view of urbanism. Unlike the unfortunately blank-walled visitor center that previously occupied this site -- a modernist building, admittedly -- Stern’s design breaks open the facade with large windows, a gracious corner plaza, and outdoor seating that will surely enliven this Old City intersection. The division of the Third Street facade into three bays, topped with arched niches, goes a long way toward reducing the buildings immense scale. Too bad the Georgian-inspired entrance doors look like something you might see on a 1980s shopping mall.

By and large, the exhibits are stirring, even if their target audience does seem, at times, to be the middle school set. I didn’t even mind the posed-figure dioramas that fill out the rather limited displays of historic artifacts, although I did worry when I visited that the sharp stick carried by one of the Oneida Indians still needed to be childproofed. Perhaps the most moving moment comes in the last gallery, where a collection of mid-19th-century photographs of elderly Revolutionary War survivors is on display. They are male, female, black, white, American Indian, and immigrant, and their worn faces testify to the human variety that established our American identity.

Camera icon JARED WHALEN / Staff
Interior of the Museum of the American Revolution.

They are also a reminder that the architecture of Philadelphia’s newest civic building is not just out of sync with the museum’s content and its location, but with a fast-changing, diversifying world. 

Note: This column was updated to correct the amount of square footage devoted to exhibit galleries and theaters.

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