Monday, July 21, 2014

The Great Steps

I appreciate a good underdog story, particularly one that uses our city to demonstrate what a true underdog can become. And whether or not you like boxing movies, Sylvester Stallone, or worn nostalgia, Philadelphia has been that underdog for a very long time and we've just recently started to win.

There's a very real reason Rocky was set in Philadelphia. The city was chosen for Twelve Monkeys, Philadelphia, and Cold Case for the same reason. For so long Philadelphia was the bleak and downtrodden embodiment of something that was once great. More than that, Philadelphia continued to fight through its darkest days because it knew it could succeed.

So why now, that we're finally beginning to see the success enjoyed by New York and Chicago, are we so willing to allow one man to eradicate a pinnacle of absolute perfection, a light of stone that kept a struggling city alive throughout the Dark Ages of modern Americana?

Would you paint the White House blue?

Despite our place in Revolutionary history, Philadelphia was a smog ridden haven for crime, poverty, and corruption during our nation's Bicentennial. When Rocky Balboa ran up the Great Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he wasn't just using a civic structure as gym equipment. He conquered seventy two daunting steps that led him to the one edifice that made Philadelphia a great city even in our worst hours. 

He turned back to the city below the Great Steps, a city faced with struggle and doubt from a point of unmolested innocence, overlooking a tarnished skyline desperate for what he had just proved he could achieve. The Philadelphia Museum of Art isn't just a museum that holds paintings. It's a Temple, in all its parts, to greatness and purity. You only need to climb its Steps to know that.

It was a symbolic feat shared by anyone who has ever visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even those long before Rocky was a household name, one that continues to be shared by today's visitors who know nothing of the movie.

But Frank Gehry's plans to carve out one sixth of the Great Steps for a picture window isn't about history. If it were, Horace Trumbauer's greatest work of art would be granted the same reverence as a historically designated row house in Society Hill.

This is pure pomp. The Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is coupling the hype of Gehry's mere presence with an aging and irrelevant connection to a forty year old movie to encourage people to embrace anything new, regardless of what it looks like.

Cinematic history aside, the Great Steps are as relevant to the building as the collection within. The banners flanking the columns of the museum call out the title of Frank Gehry's current exhibit: Making a Classic Modern. The title doesn't just insult the posterity of the building by implying historic architecture should be altered, it insults art itself, suggesting that the Mona Lisa might be better if part of it were painted over to include an iPhone.

Making a Classic Modern

Would we allow Starchitect Michael Graves to install his postmodern columns on City Hall simply because he's known throughout the world? 

The city pitched a fit when Conrad Brenner halfheartedly proposed a mural on the windowless wall behind the PSFS Building. A grassroots organization staved off the demolition of the Boyd Theater's auditorium for more than a few years and has expanded its efforts to save the historic NFL Film Exchange on North 13th Street, a simple building in a forgotten corner of Center City. 

In a city that is so vested in preserving every last crumb of our history, where is the fight to save the gateway to our most internationally recognized cultural institution? 

While Philadelphia holds an abundance of architectural history, preservationists tend to fight fights they think they can win. We fight to save historic row houses and theaters because we know that those financially vested in the demolition don't have the city's historic interest in mind. They have no respect for the bricks and mortar, just their potential profit. 

But they're also fightable. 

Frank Gehry

When it comes to institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we assume those in charge know better. Cultural institutions are not powerhouses of profit, they're repositories of posterity. But those managing the Philadelphia Museum of Art have been mesmerized by a Lord Voldemort, a Starchitect with the power and prominence to blind us from the fact that he doesn't understand our city.

Faced with a marketing campaign masquerading as an art exhibit, Philadelphians are not asked, "Could our city's artistic legacy be better served in a truly modern museum elsewhere on the Parkway?" Instead we're being told to tolerate what Frank Gehry wants to do to the history we already have.

I'm going to keep asking until the jackhammer hits the first Great Step.

Save the PMA


  1. Bravo, Wes, on a moving description of what the Art Museum meant to this city during its darkest days, and why we should preserve its architectural integrity for the future.

    And thanks for the link to my Facebook page on the topic. I was wondering where the new followers I got over the past couple days came from!

  2. From my new book, The Benjamin Franklin Parkway: "The top of the art museum's front steps offer a commanding view of the Parkway and the Philadelphia skyline. While already exceptional, the 72 stone steps achieved worldwide prominence with the 1976 release of the film Rocky. Since then, visitors from all corners of the globe have come to run triumphantly up the ascent as Sylvester Stallone did in his Oscar-winning movie (and four of its sequels). In March 2014, Rocky was shown inside the museum for the first time."

  3. Couldn't agree more. I'm tired of people thinking we should roll over for anybody who gives us attention. That's the FIRST Art Museum in the entire country. We have some of the most important history and culture in the entire county and people act like we should just give it up to the highest bidder.

    The only reason people don't like those steps is because it forces them to earn the right to enter the first art museum in the country. It's the same reason they don't like our historical sites. They want "easy".