The Academy of Natural Sciences is rooted in the nation’s history of science and in Philadelphia’s fabric of cultural institutions, but its location on Benjamin Franklin Parkway—now marking its centennial—was not a given.
In the 1889, when the Academy was looking to move from cramped quarters at 12th Street and what is now Sansom Street, the University of Pennsylvania tried luring it to build a new structure near its growing West Philadelphia campus.
An earlier proposal had the Academy joining with the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Franklin Institute in one giant cultural center at Broad and Market streets, where City Hall is now.
For various reasons, none of these proposals came to fruition. Instead, in 1868 the Academy’s building committee purchased a lot on Logan Square for $65,298 and hired an architect to design a new facility to house its growing specimen collections.
Seven years and $239,160 later, the Academy opened a 27,275-square-foot museum with room to grow.
A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science, by Academy Senior Fellow Robert Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, describes the scene on opening day. Here is an excerpt from the book that goes on to describe the new structure, likening one part to a “beggar’s deformity.”
On the day of the opening of the new edifice…the galleries were thronged with visitors from ten o’clock A.M. until after the hour for closing, ten P.M., and the vast building presented an animated and brilliant spectacle.”
So begins an account of the grand opening of the Academy’s new museum building that appeared in the May 13, 1876 edition of the Friends’ Intelligencer, a Quaker newspaper. The writer, identified only as “L.J.R.,” went on to describe in great detail not just the displays, which were “excellent,” but also many of the architectural features of the new building.
The abundant windows, glass roof, and “slender but powerful” iron balusters he likened to a house of worship, filled with the Creator’s marvelous works.
The perceived resemblance was no accident. Like many natural history museums of its time, the Academy’s new building closely followed the same basic plan of a Gothic cathedral. Designed by Philadelphia architect James, H. Windrim, the exterior was faced with green-hued serpentine stone and featured arched doorways and windows, soaring spires, and even gargoyles.
Visitors entered through a vestibule, which led into a soaring central hall flanked on either side by aisles. However, in place of pews were row upon row of cabinets, some filled with specimens, others with books.
In the original interior arrangement of the Academy, the Library occupied the first floor ringed by a single balcony. The Museum was located directly above it, ringed by two balconies.
These balconies offered extra display space while still allowing light from the windows and an 80-foot-long skylight to penetrate into the main hall.
Despite its grand proportions, the Academy’s new building was designed from the beginning to be merely the first wing of a much larger structure. To demonstrate this fact, the trustees instructed the builders to leave a wide brick patch on the south wall “exposed, like a beggar’s deformity, appealing to the generous and intelligent to contribute means to cover it.
It would remain exposed for the next 16 years until sufficient funds were raised to construct what would be the first of many additions to the Academy.
Lead Image: An illustration from 1876 of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Credit: ANS Library & Archives