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Philadelphia Revisited

The Barnes Foundation


On a winter Monday morning a group of young students was gathered in the Walter and Lenore Annenberg Court at the Barnes Foundation. They sat on a wood floor made from salvaged Coney Island boardwalk planks with sketches of rug patterns and large looms in front of them. Instructors helped them learn how to weave. Dr. Albert Barnes, creator of the eponymous Foundation, would have been pleased. Most of the world sees the Barnes as a museum, the home of some 800 paintings, and a repository of one of the greatest collections of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early-Modern works of art. Barnes regarded the institution he created as a school, a center where people would gather to look at art and to think about how to evaluate it critically.

Barnes set up shop in Merion, PA in 1922, building a house in which to display his expanding acquisitions. As a physician, who had invented Argyrol, a pharmaceutical that made him very rich, he retired from business at an early age to pursue his passion. His two most important mentors on this side of the Atlantic were the painter William Glackens and the philosopher-educator John Dewey. Glackens was sent to Europe with $20,000 to buy quality works of art. He returned with 33 canvases of which 20 remained on these shores. The rest were shipped back. Looking at these selections helped Barnes to develop his discerning eye and he was “off to the races.” He began to buy for himself and took many trips to Europe where he established relationships with dealers, such as Leo Stein and the Durand-Ruel. At times he used agents to help him scout for the finest pieces available.

John Dewey had a profound influence on his pupil as it was he who expounded the theory that experience is the best teacher. Together they developed a school where the curriculum included aesthetics, reading important philosophical texts, engaging in group discussions and examining works of art.

As the years went by, Barnes became ever more acquisitive. Today the Foundation is the owner of medieval manuscripts; sculptures, including African pieces; Native American crafts; Early American furniture and decorative arts, such Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chests; jewelry; textiles; antiquities; and industrial art. What may be the world’s largest assemblage of iron hinges hangs on the walls of many of the 24 galleries.


Fast forward to the early ‘50s and the death of Dr. Barnes. The Merion building was falling apart and needed another home. Dr. Barnes had decreed in his will that the Foundation’s priceless possessions must never be sold, loaned, or moved. A contentious battle ensued in which some trustees and other interested parties went to court to break the covenant. Those favoring a move won. The film, The Art of the Steal, documented the dispute. Completely biased, the movie only gave a voice to the naysayers. Perhaps the most important statement in it were the words of a prominent New York dealer who valued the collection between $25 and $30 billion.

The city of Philadelphia donated 4.5 acres on the magnificent Benjamin Franklin Parkway, modeled after the Champs Elysses. The Barnes could now enjoy such august neighbors as the Rodin and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The plan was to duplicate the Merion galleries exactly. The New York architectural firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien was hired to do the job. Tsien’s concept was two-fold—a gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery. Another way to describe the complex might be to say, it is a house within a house. To help you walk through the rooms that are hung just as Albert Barnes originally designed them, you might rent an audio guide. Or you might choose to go on the Masterworks tour, which allows you to ask questions of your docent. From the moment you enter the first display until you finish perusing the second floor you are awed by the quality and exquisite lushness of what your eyes are feasting on. You are also overcome by the sheer breath of it all. How did one man manage to assemble so much of the very best output of Renoir, Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and on and on? In the movie version of his biography, Barnes stated that he was a gambler. Perhaps the answer is that he took chances on buying the art of painters who had not yet reached their zeniths.


Barnes did not believe in wall plaques that named the paintings. Only tiny metal plates rest on the bottoms of frames to identify the artists. However, the problem of discovering the title of each work is solved with booklets that are placed in bench receptacles—one for each room—matching up photos with the appellations.

The new galleries, having been rebuilt like the old ones, required meticulous measurements. At first glance the works seem oddly arranged, but in fact a strict scheme was used to mount them. Rather than relying on style, period or genre Barnes thought of each wall as an “ensemble.” He used the criteria of line, color, light and space. Rooms, covered with paintings from ceilings to floors, are symmetrical as balance was another one of his maxims. To look at a wall and try to figure out why it is arranged in a certain way is like trying to find the answer to a riddle. But soon you begin to see the how important elements repeat themselves in the art that is grouped together.

Just as in Merion, the same yellowish taupe burlap covers the walls, but it seems lighter because of the improved natural and electronically-controlled lighting. Many visitors wonder whether the paintings were cleaned—they were not. But because they show much better in the re-constructed edifice one has a different and more pleasurable experience at the Parkway’s newcomer.

The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA Tel. 215-278-7100, http://www.barnesfoundation.org

Where To Stay

As we all know from our grade school history lessons Philadelphia owes its prominence to the distinct and important part it played in the birth of our nation. The imprint left by our founding fathers still hovers over the Center City streets they walked when they gathered to frame the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Decades later, the City of Brotherly Love underwent a spectacular renaissance that transformed it into a vibrant center for all things cultural, particularly art.


Hotel Palomar, a relative newcomer among the town’s lodgings —it opened in 2009—is part of the privately-held Kimpton group. Travellers immediately recognized it as a special place to stay when visiting Philadelphia and rank it 2nd out of 83 listings on Trip Advisor. Bill Kimpton, the company’s founder, pioneered the boutique lodgings concept in the States and now operates 58 hotels and 67 restaurants. Although the brand is expansive, the chain, unlike many others, has no buildings that are boringly similar.

Every Kimpton is unique and each one has a theme, which often relates to its location or its past history. The narrative of the Palomar is “Art in Motion.” No tag line could have suited it more as Philadelphia is awash with museums, galleries, murals and art walks. The edifice is an incredible example of Art Deco design. The landmark 1929 Architects Building was restored to its original splendor and decorated like a small museum filled with original paintings and sculptures.

On the underside of the porte cochere is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Enter the lobby and against the left wall are three pedestals holding identical red, white and blue busts of Franklin. Perhaps old Ben is meant to be the mascot here as he is to be seen once more in a composite in an elevator cab. All the lifts have murals on their walls—each composition is a one-of-a-kind. An amusing white figure-skate sits on the front desk and a white abstract sculpture is perched on a corridor table.


The halls are lined with art, some of which is three-dimensional, and even the chandeliers could be viewed as though they had been sculpted. A colorful tiled second floor foyer is reminiscent of Moroccan décor. Throughout the building are several bronzes of people climbing a rope as though they are trying to reach a summit.

Even the guest rooms have an artistic ambience. A mirror is hung in a quirky frame like a work of art. Lamp stands resemble slabs of rock and depending on your point of view pleated night tables represent radiators, fans or corrugated paper. And, oh yes, the fabrics from which the bathrobes are fashioned have zebra and leopard patterns. The guest rooms are both cozy and comfortable and include a separate shower and tub.

The in-house restaurant Square 1682 is so named as a tribute to Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn. In that year when he designed the city he included five parks in his plan. One of them, Rittenhouse Square, is a block from the hotel. The city’s toniest shopping area, Walnut Street, is mere steps away.


Service is exemplary. There’s a motto: “Forgot It? We’ve got it! Or we’ll go get it.” The number of available on-the-house amenities is quite lengthy and includes items that you won’t find in other hotels, such as shirt stays, dental floss, contact lens solution, band-aids, and stain remover wipes. If you were to accidentally leave your toilet kit at home you could easily reconstruct it by calling the front desk. Some of the other outstanding features include a 24-hour fitness center, bikes, complimentary morning beverages, pastries and newspapers, and in-room spa services. There is no internet connection charge for Kimpton guest loyalty members.

But the amenity that tops them all is the complimentary cocktail hour every day at 5:00 in the lobby. On a cold winter afternoon, while a fire crackled in the hearth, the bartender offered hot toddies, as an alternative to wine. It made me wonder what the special drink might be in warmer weather.

Hotel Palomar, 117 S. 17th Street, Philadelphia, PA. Tel. 215-563-5006.

Winter 2012-13