Historical Note


America celebrated its first 100 years of independence with an exhibition to rival Europe's expositions popularized during the second half of the 19th century. Officially organized as the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Products of the Soil and Mine, the event was commonly referred to, both then and now, as the Centennial Exhibition, and intended to focus on the country's progress and equality with foreign industry, technology and culture. Held in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, the exhibition was staged over 285 acres, with more than 250 pavilions to present displays from the United States and those of the 37 participating countries. One of the Centennial's most enduring legacies was its art gallery that led to the establishment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Intended as a permanent building, Memorial Hall was constructed to house more than 4,000 works of art and applied arts and countless photographs from 20 countries. The following year the building, which still stands today, reopened as a permanent museum. It was chartered as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, the original name of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Memorial Hall served as the Museum's home for more than half a century. During its earliest years and in the spirit of the Centennial celebration, the Museum's holdings focused on the industrial arts. The collections, however, would expand to encompass fine and decorative art objects, including objects made in Europe and Japan. Perhaps the earliest major expansion in the Museum's collection occurred In 1893. That year Mrs. W.P. Wilstach, widow of a Philadelphia leather manufacturer, bequeathed her large painting collection to the City of Philadelphia, as well as an endowment of half a million dollars to purchase additional works of art. The gift allowed for new acquisitions of art, which in turn, made obvious the need for additional space.

The following year, Philadelphia's City Councils, at the urging of the Fairmount Park Commission, appropriated funds to design a new museum, and in 1895 an announcement was made that a competition would be held. At that time, a Federal period house known as Lemon Hill, which was located in the City's Fairmount Park, was to be razed so that the grounds would serve as the site for the new building. Almost four decades would pass before the new museum would open to the public. During that period, a number of changes occurred that would lead to starts and stops in the grand project, including changes in design, architects, municipal government endorsement, and, thus funding. One of the most significant changes, occurring more than 20 years into the project planning, pertained to the building's location. In 1919 the City decided to stop using the water reservoir located on a flat hill in Fairmount Park, and this site became the new and final location for the museum. Ironically, the early 19th century house originally planned for demolition to accommodate the building later served as the home to Fiske Kimball, the Museum's director from 1925 to 1950, who tirelessly orchestrated the completion of the new building's construction and the new direction of the Museum's interior spaces and collection goals. Also during this period, and in typical Philadelphia fashion, private citizens would take the lead in forming committees to push the project to its completion. On March 26, 1928, the citizens of Philadelphia finally were able to visit the magnificent neoclassical structure of dolomite and terra cotta that welcomed them atop the hill.

Works Consulted

Brownlee, David B. Making a modern classic: the architecture of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1977).

"Exhibition facts" and "Tours: Memorial Hall." Centennial exhibition digital collection. Free Library of Philadelphia.