Pennsylvania: Broad Street, Philadelphia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

First built as a prestigious residential area, Broad Street is now home to several famous cultural and historical institutions, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (the oldest art museum and school in the country) and the Academy of Music (the oldest musical auditorium still in use in the country).

Site Offices:

Academy of Music

Broad and Locust Streets

Philadelphia, PA 19102

ph.: (215) 893-1935

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Broad and Cherry Streets

Philadelphia, PA 19102

ph.: (215) 972-7600

Across the north end of Philadelphia stretches Broad Street, named after its original plan to be one hundred feet wide. In its early days, the street was only a few blocks long, but in the years following the American Revolution, it was extended to reach 12 miles, the second-longest straight street in the country (only topped by Chicago’s Western Avenue at 23.5 miles). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Broad Street was Philadelphia’s most glamorous residential area. Since then, it has evolved into a mecca of cultural and historical institutions. Two of its oldest and most important historical sites are the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Music.

Early History

Although the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as it stands today was not built until 1871, its origins date back to 1805. At that time, Philadelphia was beginning a transition from rural country town to thriving urban community. During the summer of that year, artist Charles Willson Peale had the idea to build a fine arts center that would display valuable pieces of art, instruct students, and weave the fine arts discipline into the Philadelphia community. He wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson explaining the need for such an institution, and later that year brought together a group of seventy-one men–only three of them artists–to organize the project. George Clyner, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was elected academy president, and the group began efforts to raise funds.

The first home to the academy was a building at Philadelphia’s Tenth and Chestnut Streets. Designed by architect John Dorsey and opened in 1806, the building was a classical structure that initially displayed mostly European paintings. In these early days, the academy also housed such pieces as Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse and Washington Allston’s Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha, both of which required the building to be mortgaged for their purchase. Other work on display included paintings by Thomas Scully, William Rush, and Gilbert Stuart.

The Academy’s Art School

Although its collections grew rapidly, the academy’s art school was slow to start. In 1812, a group of twenty-four distinguished painters, sculptors, architects, and engravers was organized to attract students and establish the art school academia. Just as it is today, the art school’s early curriculum was composed of drawing, sculpture, painting, anatomy and perspective, and drawing from casts of ancient sculpture. Especially popular was its portrait class, as portrait painting provided many academy students with their income. In 1844, the academy’s board of directors granted women artists exclusive use of the statue gallery at certain times of the day. By the 1880’s, women students were considered equal in status to men.

In 1845, the academy suffered from a severe fire that badly damaged its structure and a part of its collection. The building was reconstructed with the same foundation and floor plans and reopened three years later. However, as the academy’s collections and student body began to grow, the building became cramped for space. In addition, a severe storm had struck in 1870, damaging many of the gallery skylights. Shortly after, the board decided to sell the building, and for seven years the academy housed its treasures and taught its classes in nearby rented quarters.

In 1871, the architectural firm of Furness and Hewitt was commissioned to design a third building for the academy. One of its principal architects, Frank Furness, had already been credited with the design of most of Philadelphia’s civic buildings including libraries, hospitals, banks, churches, university buildings, and railroad stations. Furness had also designed many homes for Philadelphia’s notable citizens.

“Fearless” Frank Furness

After serving in the Union army during the Civil War, “Fearless” Frank Furness completed his architectural studies and took permanent residence in his hometown of Philadelphia. He began his career in 1866 with the design of Philadelphia’s Unitarian Church of Germantown. Influenced by such contemporaries as Richard Morris Hunt, Violletle Duc, and William Burges, his work was characterized by a wide mixture of styles, colors, forms, scales, textures, and materials. During the time of Philadelphia’s great cultural growth, Furness was one of its principal artistic contributors.

Furness, along with his partner, George Hewitt, designed the new Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in a fashionable High Victorian manner on the corner of Broad and Cherry Streets. The spacious structure, built of incombustible construction materials, provided plenty of room for both the museum and art school. The building was made of brick, stone, iron, and glass, with wood added only where necessary. Specially decorated arches, columns, lintels, beams, girders, and trusses stood as a reflection of structural expressionism and a signature of the Furness design. The building was ready to open in 1876, just in time for Philadelphia’s celebration of the nation’s centennial.

Thomas Eakins

With the grand opening of the third academy building came realist painter and modern thinker Thomas Eakins, who began teaching in 1876. Eakins was appointed director in 1882, whereupon he began several controversial practices that led to his dismissal four years later. Such practices included allowing female students to work from live nude models. (Male students had been required to work with live nudes since the 1850’s.) During this period, the academy’s collection was upgraded by managing director Harrison S. Morris, who supervised purchases including Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt and many fine examples of American Impressionism. Also during this period, the academy instructed such students as Robert Henri, Henry O. Tanner, John Marin, and Mary Cassatt.

Over time, the academy underwent many changes in decor as styles constantly evolved. By the start of the twentieth century, much of its Victorian appearance had been altered. Although its collection grew and improved through the years, the building itself did just the opposite. A hundred years of neglect, dirt, and sloppy stylistic revisions left the academy in poor condition. In 1966, the building underwent a thorough cleaning of the exterior. Then in 1973, the academy’s board of trustees decided to close the building for two years in order to modernize it and restore its interior to Furness’s original Victorian design.

Modern Restoration of the Academy

The restoration turned out to be much less complicated than anyone thought. Most of the original decor was revealed simply by removing layer after layer of dirt, paint, and wall coverings. The arched ceiling was stripped to expose its original white brick. The grand stone stairhall and the remaining mosaic tile floor underneath it were uncovered and carefully cleaned to reveal a sparkling surface that reflects light and considerably brightens the interior. When Furness designed the academy, he placed much emphasis on natural light. During the restoration, the ceiling was returned to its original design–a huge glass skylight sprinkled with silverleaf stars. Once again, sunlight poured in, flooding the academy with natural brightness.

Along with the restoration, the academy underwent an extensive updating of its facilities. Air-conditioning, air cleaning, and ultraviolet filtration systems were installed, along with electronic security and fire detection devices. New lighting systems were added. The old water-powered freight elevator was replaced with a new passenger elevator, and a museum shop was built. All these modernizations were made without any violation of the building’s design. The restoration completed in 1976, the academy once again opened its doors–this time to celebrate the academy’s centennial and the nation’s bicentennial.

Today, the academy still has one of the largest, most widely known and respected collections of American art. In 1955, over one hundred of its works traveled under the sponsorship of the U.S. Information Agency to Madrid, Florence, Copenhagen, Brussels, Innsbruck, and Stockholm. As a whole, the collection can be seen as a historical expression of Philadelphia’s artistic heritage. For example, the earliest American paintings reflect an influence of the newest styles emanating from London. The stylistic demands of the 1790’s, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and portrait painting was highly competitive, are also reflected in art of this time. The collection is also marked by the many gifts, bequests, and purchases made during the prosperous last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is the oldest art institution in the country. Although it has undergone many physical changes and changes in its collection, its founding principles still remain as written in the academy’s charter: “to promote the cultivation of the fine arts in the United States of America.”

Other Cultural Centers

Another institution of culture and tradition on Broad Street is the Academy of Music. Built on the corner of Broad and Locust Streets, the academy is the oldest musical auditorium still in use in the country. A celebrated historical landmark, the academy remains one of the busiest halls in the world, hosting many community functions and cultural activities.

In the early 1850’s, Philadelphia was quickly becoming one of the most important cultural centers in the country. For years, citizens had worried that Philadelphia’s lack of an opera hall caused them to lag behind the Europeans culturally. Attempts to build such a hall were made as far back as 1839, but not until 1855 was a stock offering initiated and an official charter drawn up. The charter, in addition to setting construction and management guidelines, led to a national architectural competition for the design assignment. The Philadelphia firm of Napoleon Le Brun and Gustavus Rungé was selected to design the academy.

Although the center of the city would have been an obvious location, the founders decided to build in Philadelphia’s residential section. By avoiding the cultural heart of the budding metropolis, the academy would escape the noise from carriage and horse traffic as well as cattle and sheep herding. After careful consideration, the corner of Broad and Locust Streets was chosen as a location. The architects agreed to leave the exterior a simple brownstone; it was designed so a marble facade could be added later, when funds were available, but the brownstone has always remained unaltered. The exterior is embellished with red brick, painted cast iron, reinforcement arches, and rectangular features in the style of an Italian opera house.

The architects paid much more attention to the academy’s interior, emphasizing convenience and efficiency, along with a luxurious decor. The auditorium is shaped like an open horseshoe to provide greater visibility for the side balcony seats. The balconies are recessed upward and supported by Corinthian columns; the first balcony is decorated with stylized medallions. A five thousand-pound crystal chandelier, originally lit by two hundred forty gas burners, hangs from a frescoed ceiling. Painted on the ceiling are allegorical figures representing poetry, music, comedy, tragedy, and dance. The hall is decorated with carved and gilded wood sculptures and four elliptical panels containing cherubs that depict the four seasons.

Restoration of the Academy

With the exception of occasional modernizations, the Academy of Music did not undergo a major restoration until the 1950’s. To raise funds for the improvements, a Restoration Fund Office was established. The office’s biggest project, the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball, has since become one of the country’s most successful annual fund-raisers. Its proceeds have funded such projects as conservation of the academy’s wood sculptures and ceiling murals, and the renovation, soundproofing, and carpeting of the ballroom. The academy also installed a new main house curtain and two elevators that make all levels of the auditorium accessible to the handicapped. In 1957, the huge chandelier was rewired and fitted with an electric-powered winch. This change allowed the chandelier to be lowered in five minutes. Before the rewiring, it required four hours and twelve people to lower it by hand.

The main hall of the academy, which seats 2,929 people, has been constantly in use for operas, concerts, ballets, and other events. The ballroom has primarily been the site of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Music Series, but it is also available for social and civic functions. In fact, many United States presidents have visited the Academy–in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant was nominated there for his second term. Grover Cleveland even held his wedding dinner in the auditorium. In 1889, Philadelphia’s first indoor football game was held there also, after the temporary installment of a wooden floor.

The academy’s basement has also played a historical role. When the academy first opened in 1857, its basement was an elegant restaurant complete with drawing rooms and Victorian decor. During World War II, the restaurant was turned into the Stage Door Canteen, a gathering place for military men and women. The Canteen, open until October, 1945, served refreshments and presented big-name entertainers including Abbott and Costello, Duke Ellington, Alfred Lunt, and Frank Sinatra.

After the Grand Opening Ball on February 25, 1857, the academy became home to the American premieres of many now-famous operas including Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore (1852), La traviata (1853), and Aïda (1871); Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859); and Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868). Since its founding in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association has owned and operated the academy. The academy also serves other cultural institutions including the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the All Star/Forum. The list of famous artists who have performed there is long: Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler, Peter Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Artur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, and many others. The Academy of Music was designated a historical landmark in 1963.

Both the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Music play an integral part in Philadelphia’s cultural history. As the oldest American institutions of their kind still in use, their influence has made Broad Street a cultural catalyst not only for Philadelphia, but for the whole country as well.

For Further Information
  • Alotta, Robert I. Street Names of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975. A unique street-by-street directory of Philadelphia, describing each street, explaining its location, and giving a brief history of it.
  • Boyle, Richard J. “The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Its Founding and Early Years.” Antiques, March, 1982. A fairly detailed essay that includes several photos of the academy’s famous early paintings.
  • Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of An American Aristocracy. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Includes several references to the academies in its historical discussion of the city.
  • Goodyear, Frank H., Jr. “American Paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy.” Antiques, March, 1982. Traces the history of the academy’s renowned American collection and includes several photographs.
  • Klein, Philip S., and Ari Hoogenboom. A History of Philadelphia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Makes many references to both the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Music.
  • Myers, Hyman. “The Three Buildings of the Pennsylvania Academy.” Antiques, March, 1982. Describes the history of each academy building, emphasizing interior decor and exterior design.
  • Weinberg, Ephraim. “The Art School of the Pennsylvania Academy.” Antiques, March, 1982. Tells the story of the art school, its curriculum, and its accomplishments.
Categories: History