Comprising seven different wings opened between 1899 and 2004, our Penn Museum building itself is an extraordinary artifact, with distinctive architectural features including the Harrison Rotunda—the largest unsupported masonry floor-dome in the world, and beautiful public gardens featuring fountains, sculptures by Alexander Stirling Calder, and a koi pond.
A History of our Building and Gardens
A team of three prominent Philadelphia architectural firms created the original design for the Penn Museum, all of whose principals taught on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania—Wilson Eyre, Cope & Stewardson, and Frank Miles Day & Brother. Only a portion of the original plan for the Museum was built. The first phase was completed in 1899 with public galleries, the exquisite Widener Lecture Room, and a suite of laboratories and offices surrounding an Italian courtyard garden accessed through an Asian-style gate. The Rotunda, which houses the China and Japan Galleries, and the Harrison Auditorium on the ground floor, was completed in 1915. Charles G. Klauder designed the Coxe Memorial Wing, which opened in 1926 to house the Museum’s renowned Egyptian collection on two gallery floors with storage on the ground floor. The Sharpe Wing, completed in 1929, was built as an administrative wing but today houses galleries for Africa, Greece, Etruscan Italy, and changing exhibitions, as well as collections storage, the Director’s Office, and the Mediterranean Section.
The following is adapted from Douglas M. Haller 1999 “Architectural Archaeology: A Centennial View of the Museum Buildings,” Expedition, Volume 41(1):31-47.
1887: The Origins of the Penn Museum
The Penn Museum was founded by William Pepper during his years as Provost (1881–1894), to bring together under one roof artifacts that evidenced the development and history of humanity from antiquity to the present. In 1887 he persuaded the University trustees to accept artifacts from an upcoming expedition to the ancient Babylonian site of Nippur (in modern-day Iraq) and secured their promise to erect a fireproof building to house them.
Antiquities accumulated by the University were gathered together in a large room on the top floor of College Hall, and presented to the public in 1889 as the Museum of Archaeology and Palaeontology. As the Nippur artifacts and other collections began to arrive, the Museum was relocated in 1890 to the newly erected University Library, designed by architect Frank Furness. Some of the collections were displayed in the cubical stair tower or adjacent rooms. Artifacts from the Americas, the major section, were given the foremost gallery on the top floor of the cathedral-like nave. It was agreed, however, that the Museum would soon need a building of its own. This dream was made possible when the City donated a swampy portion of land between 34th Streets and the Schuylkill River, near the Blockley Almshouse, across South Street from Franklin Field where a succession of stadiums would soon rise across the street from the new museum.
1899: The Original Wing and Garden
Wilson Eyre headed the team of architectural firms selected to design the new museum. Although Eyre was known among the City's elite for gracious residences, this structure would be the largest public building of his career. Influenced by architecture he had seen in Italy during his childhood, he selected the Northern Italian Renaissance style. It was not a pure style, however, as Eyre incorporated eclectic features and details to represent the internationalism of the collections within. One outstanding example is the Asian-style entrance gateway. Eyre witnessed the completion of only four sections of the vast Museum complex before the Great Depression interrupted the building program. Even in an uncompleted state it would stand as one of the foremost Victorian-era structures in the City. During the three decades that the original buildings rose (1899–1929), the 1896 master plan was adhered to, although the architects practicing in the partnerships changed.
Eyre and the other architects had a vision of a complex of buildings situated in a nine-acre landscape. Three central rotundas would be devoted to the ancient civilizations of Greece & Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, flanked by courtyard buildings dedicated to the traditional cultures of America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Parks containing fountains and pools, with gardens featuring trees and plants from around the world, would complete the eclectic Victorian extravaganza. Aspects of the Museum complex were revised over the years in numerous drawings, but the basic concept remained the same as in the 1896 plan.
The details of the 1899 building were particularly fine: floral and faunal glass mosaics by the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company, sculpture by Alexander Stirling Calder, and marble medallions by John Ross of New York City. The white marble medallions are either symbolic representations of the curatorial collections at the time of the 1899 opening, or of the Museum's general areas of interest. The Greek relief, believed to represent architecture, is placed on the 33rd Street facade, which originally overlooked a terraced park.
The new Museum (renamed the Free Museum of Science and Art in 1899) was a collaborative effort: land donated by the City, a considerable sum contributed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the building provided by private benefactors. At the opening, the Museum was arranged as a microcosm of the scheme planned for the entire complex. On the upper floor the three main galleries substituted for the planned rotundas by exhibiting the Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian collections. During the day the building was flooded with natural light from windows and skylights. At night this effect was maintained by electric lights in glass shades suspended from skylights in wrought iron fixtures. In fact, the Museum was one of the first fully electric public buildings in the City. On the lower floor the traditional cultures of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and America were exhibited in galleries substituting for the courtyard buildings that were to be constructed one day. Special collections (coins, fans, musical instruments, engraved gems) were also displayed on this floor, as was the Sommerville Buddhist Temple.
1915: The Harrison Rotunda and Auditorium
The Harrison Rotunda is an architectural wonder. Ancient Roman construction methods reinterpreted by the Guastavino engineering firm were employed to achieve the all-masonry rotunda, with upper and lower chambers each surmounted by a monumental self-supporting dome. On the upper level the interlocking tile dome was topped by a glass lantern. The weight of the 90-foot walls was borne by engaged masonry piers (each side of the open arch). The floor was also 90 feet in diameter, making for harmonious proportions. The opening exhibition featured Asian ceramics in Queen Anne vitrines, with European tapestries and Oriental rugs adorning the walls and floor, all loaned for the occasion. Much of this material had appeared on the art market due to political conditions in China at the time. Museum Director George Byron Gordon (1910–1927) took advantage of the Harrison Hall opening in 1916 to encourage Museum patrons to purchase items for the permanent collections of the University Museum, as it was formally named in 1913.
The lower chamber of the Rotunda consists of an auditorium seating 800 persons. A monumental domed ceiling with a bronze sunburst at its center illuminates the Harrison Auditorium. Two features made it the talk of the town in 1915: it had a system to purify and circulate air, and masonry construction techniques permitted a pillar-free space, offering unobstructed views anywhere within the auditorium. Its small stage, however, precluded grand productions.
1924: The Egyptian (Coxe) Wing
Eckley B. Coxe, Jr., was one of the Museum’s most generous patrons. An avid admirer of Egyptian civilization from childhood, he personally financed six Museum expeditions to Nubia and Egypt between 1907 and 1915. As President of the Museum’s Board (1910–1916) he contributed large sums for general operating expenses. Although he had been the major contributor toward the construction of the Harrison Rotunda, he graciously deferred to the University Provost as namesake for the structure. Never robust, Coxe fell ill and died at the age of 44, leaving a half-million dollar endowment to the Museum. The Coxe Memorial Egyptian Wing was constructed in 1924 to display and store the collections he cherished. Public enthusiasm created by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 provided a warm reception for the Coxe Wing opening.
The Coxe Wing was designed to connect the westernmost (Harrison) rotunda with the planned central rotunda. The wing consists of two levels, each featuring a large main hall with small galleries opening off both sides of it. A misunderstanding with the architects about the weight-bearing capacity of the upper floor resulted in a major tragedy in Museum history. It was intended that the splendid remains of the Palace of Merenptah would be reconstructed at full height in the Upper Hall, while the sculptural collections would be displayed in the Lower Hall. Because the Upper Hall could not support its weight, however, the Pharaonic throne room was placed in the Lower Hall where its architectural elements had to be presented side-by-side. The great sphinx of Ramesses II was placed there for the same reason. It originally stood guard outdoors at the main entrance (1913–16), but was brought indoors due to fears that winter frost would crack its red granite stone. Transported to the Lower Hall of the Coxe Wing before the eastern wall of the gallery was bricked up, it remains entombed there today. The gallery has a solemn grandeur unequaled by any in the Museum, despite the fact that it resulted from a misunderstanding.
1929: The Administrative (Sharpe) Wing and Courtyard
The Administrative Wing was planned as the main entrance for the entire Museum complex, although modified from semicircular to straight. It was envisioned that the portals would lead from the driveway to the planned central rotunda with a 2,000-seat auditorium below. The wing was intended to house offices for the Director and Board, the Education Department, classrooms, and collection study rooms, including a Members' Room. Only a transverse corridor gallery on each of its upper three floors would be devoted to exhibition space. Two floors below ground were for storage.
Funded primarily by Eldridge Johnson, founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co., and Chairman of the Museum Board in the late 1920s, who declined to have the building named for himself, the 1929 addition was designated as the Administrative Wing. As the years went by, Museum staff began calling it the Educational Wing since that department conducted activities there. When the Education Department relocated in 1971, staff began calling it the Sharpe Wing, after the Sharpe Memorial Gallery on the top floor corridor, named for Richard and Sally Patterson Sharpe. By extension, the entrance and adjacent courtyard began to be called Sharpe as well.
Most notable in the courtyard are the sculptural embellishments by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870–1945). Calder is best known in Philadelphia for the Swann Fountain at Logan Circle (1924), another project in which he collaborated with architect Wilson Eyre. His father is known for the William Penn statue atop City Hall, while his son is the Calder of mobile fame. The masterful blend of architecture, sculpture, and practical purpose evidenced in the Administrative Wing courtyard and Stadium is nowhere more apparent than in the life-size representations atop the gateposts of the courtyard. As indicated by Calder, the paired figures portray Asia (India and China), Europe (Ancient and Modern), Africa (Islamic North and Negro Sub-Saharan), and America (North and South Native American).
Extending the international theme established in the architecture and sculpture of the original 1899 courtyard, Calder's continental personifications are eloquent. Urns to each side bear ethnographic face masks appropriate to the continent represented in the adjacent figure. Most surprising is the statuary for Europe. In Calder's incisive feminist statement, an unveiled ancient Greek maiden in long garment and sun hat touches hands across the centuries with a modern European woman in shortened skirt and bobbed hair: a Roaring Twenties flapper!
1971: The Academic Wing
The effects of the Great Depression and World War II were devastating for the Museum, especially in terms of administrative activities, but expansion of the collections and research abroad also suffered. Needless to say, the building program was interrupted following the stock market crash; and both postwar income tax and competition with the Philadelphia Museum of Art made it harder to attract wealthy patrons.
Following the War, energetic new Director Froelich Rainey (1947–1976) reinvigorated the Museum’s reputation as a research institution during his three-decade administration. Rainey’s emphasis was on spectacular field projects, however, and the buildings and collections experienced a period of neglect, a legacy which his successors had to bear. It was no longer feasible to complete the 1896 master plan as originally envisioned, due to the prohibitive costs of materials, skilled labor, and maintenance in the modern world. Several more modest proposals for unifying the existing buildings were submitted. The Mitchell and Giurgola plan accepted in 1968 was for an ultra-Modern structure, in striking contrast to the original buildings. The Academic Wing became a concretization of Rainey’s administration: the establishment of a modern, university Anthropology Department fused with a traditional archaeology museum.
An L-shaped structure of five stories plus basement, its major design strength is its unification of the disparate wings of the uncompleted original complex, largely through use of pedestrian bridges connecting the older buildings with the new wing. The Academic Wing is most pleasing at the rear facade, where brick and tile similar to those of the original buildings were used, and the balanced proportions of the original structure maintained while a modern aura achieved.
2002: The Mainwaring Wing for Collections Storage
Atkin, Olshin, Lawson-Bell, and Associates' plan for the Collections Storage and Study Mainwaring Wing is both a return to the 1896 master plan and a continuation of Mitchell and Giurgola's Modernism. Named for two of the Museum’s most generous and longstanding benefactors A. Bruce and Margaret A. Mainwaring, the wing is a state-of-the-art storage facility with environmental control, and office and workspace for those who maintain and study the collections.
Extending from the small north facade of the Academic Wing, it has four floors and a basement, matching the height of the Administrative Wing and enclosing the courtyard on the east end. The wing’s most distinguishing feature is its inventive, dual personality. On the eastern facade, bronze panels with limestone surrounds face the concrete foundation; and an arcade lightens the massive structure at street level, perpendicular to the Franklin Field arcade. Conversely, the northern and western facades are a post-Modern interpretation of the original buildings. Not only the proportions, materials, and coursing are matched, but decorative details are continued, such as ceramic tiles for adornment. An illuminated bay facing South Street acts as a visual equivalent to the apse on the 1899 building directly across the courtyard.