Window on the Rocky world
A proposal for Art Museum renovation calls for radical changes. Would they be a step too far?
Frank Gehry, the renowned architect, has proposed something radical, heretical, in the Rocky world: changing the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The museum is about to begin a 10-year renovation, for the most part undeniably fabulous. Most changes are inside, subterranean, excavating beneath the east terrace and fountain, doubling exhibit space, filling it with light.
The museum will reopen an original and glorious 640-foot vaulted walkway that runs at ground level from Kelly Drive to the Schuylkill, planning entrances at each end.
Gehry has also proposed adding a window, carved into the famous steps, so visitors inside the new exhibit space can orient themselves with the city outside and see the Ben Franklin Parkway and City Hall. The window also would invite people outside to look in.
Rocky runners could still run up each side, but the sweep of the grand staircase would disappear.
It is merely a proposal, everyone at the museum stresses, and a decision on this last piece of the renovation is years away.
"Ten different ways it could go," said Gehry. "Not a done deal yet. Something to talk about."
What the museum is after, in addition to expanding space for its collections, is making the building more appealing to ordinary people, more accessible, less intimidating.
"We need to improve the relationship of the museum with the city," said Mark Rubenstein, a board member who chaired the master-plan review committee. "It's a city museum, yet for some reason it's blocked off from the city. The city can't see in, and people who view art can't see out."
He described the museum as a "formidable institution," one that "scares the hell out of people in the city. And we have to get over that."
This is exactly how Sylvester Stallone, who attended Lincoln High School, felt when he wrote the screenplay to Rocky and created what has become the iconic scene of Rocky running the museum steps.
"The steps were like this magical area, like this intellectual bastion that I would only look at from afar," Stallone wrote in the foreword to my book, Rocky Stories. "It almost seemed like another city, like the Acropolis."
The symbol of the character's success, Stallone added, "will be whether he is able to run up the steps of this magnificent structure - a structure where he really doesn't even understand what's inside, but only what it represents."
Nobody involved in the original movie expected Rocky running the steps to become a ritual repeated by untold thousands. It just started happening. The Academy Award-winning movie will be 40 years old in 2016, and runners are as prolific as ever.
The steps are the heart of the Rocky world. Stallone came to understand this. He returns to them in Rocky II. A statue is erected in Rocky III. He runs them 30 years later, in the same gray sweat suit, in Rocky Balboa, essentially Rocky VI.
Stallone left the statue from Rocky III with steel rods driven deep into the top of the museum steps, intending it to remain in perpetuity. A huge fight ensued - many wanting it to stay, the arts community feeling a movie prop did not belong in such an exalted place.
It was relocated to the Spectrum, scene of the fictional fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed. By 2006, though, the statue returned, but at the bottom of the steps, off to the side, in the grass. I submit the statue is so incredibly popular now because of its proximity to the steps.
I came to understand the power and appeal of the steps during the year Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish and I spent there observing and interviewing perhaps 1,000 runners.
Early in the movie, an out-of-shape Rocky tries running the steps, but can't make it all the way up. Near the end of the film, a morning before the championship fight, by himself, he runs to the top and lifts his arms in triumph.
He is celebrating not victory in the ring - he hasn't fought yet - but his own transformation. He has regained his dignity and self-respect, and has realized that his success would have little meaning without the love of Adrian or friendship with Mick.
For many, running is a tourist attraction, which in and of itself is a very fine thing. But for countless others, the journey up those 72 sandstone steps is much more meaningful. It is a personal statement. They are celebrating their own achievements or seeking motivation for challenges ahead. We met people who were the first in their family to graduate from college and came to run the steps, or who overcame cancer and came to run the steps, or who got their dream job and came to run the steps.
Mark Glazier, a welder from British Columbia, ran with a tear in his eye. "Everybody knows what it is that brings you here," he told me. "It's the feeling, man. You come here for the feeling, that you can accomplish something, that anybody can accomplish anything they want with hard work."
Some in the Rocky world fear any alteration to the steps will ruin the experience so meaningful to so many.
I left the news gathering last month in which Gehry and museum officials unveiled their plans, and explained them to Darren Brooks, of London, who had just run the steps and was enjoying the experience a second time watching video of it on his wife's phone.
"I think it's a real shame," he said of a proposed window. "You've got the view already. Right here. It's magnificent."
"The Museum of Art was put on the map for millions in this world because of Rocky," said Mike Kunda, a Rocky impersonator, whose life was truly changed by the movie, and who runs tours culminating at the steps.
"The steps are a symbol of hope and inspiration," he said. "Even though it's corny, it is what it is."
He has a suggestion.
"If the museum wants to see how much it would influence or ruin the Rocky experience," he said of the proposed window, "why don't they have a Rocky exhibit in the museum? Put it in a little gallery there. 'Come see this and take a look at the proposal for the steps, and give us your thoughts.' "
I mentioned Kunda's idea to Rubenstein.
"I don't see anything wrong with that," Rubenstein said. "I'm sure some of the curators will kill me. But I think it's appropriate to some extent, if we can find the right place to do it well."
David Brownlee, the University of Pennsylvania architectural historian, says that from a preservationist's point of view - forget about Rocky for a moment - other elements of Gehry's design may accomplish the museum's mission without altering the steps.
He points to skylights, reopening the vaulted walkway and ground-level entrances, and adding order and organization to gallery spaces.
But he applauds the museum for being bold, for asking the question. Brownlee noted that many approvals would be required before the steps could be altered and that fund-raising will require public support.
"I'm of two minds about this myself," said museum CEO Timothy Rub, referring to the window. "But what's been interesting to me is that, of the many people with whom we've shared the plan already, a good half of them are really excited about it. The other half say, 'How can you even imagine messing with the steps?'
"It's a matter of saying, 'Here's an idea. We're thinking about it. What do you think?' A museum should prompt these conversations," Rub added.
I love the idea of starting a Rocky exhibit inside the museum, examining the movie's enduring appeal and impact on popular culture. Get Stallone to come to the opening.
I also love the museum's desire to connect with people and to open up the building. I admit it could be very cool to stand in the vaulted walkway and look out across the gallery space and see City Hall. But I would hate to do anything to harm such a wonderful, authentic experience as running the steps.
The good news is we are years from making any decision. Let the conversation begin.
Michael Vitez is an Inquirer staff writer and author of "Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps."