A dilettante at large considers Philly After Dark at the Athenaeum

philly-after-dark-1DAL is back, roaming around.

And during all the years I’ve been roaming around Philly—before and after dark—I must have walked past the Athenaeum hundreds of times without ever going in. What a lovely building! A National Historic Landmark, it was designed in 1845 and is one of the first Philadephia structures built of brownstone. Its library on the second floor is a beauty: hushed and softly lit it is welcoming to both general readers (entrance is free) and research scholars (members only). Is there a more charming sign than “Pencils only, please” that greets anyone using rare books? There is a little chess room at its entrance, and an elegant balcony overlooking Washington Square.

But what brought me there was their current exhibition, Philly After Dark, a whimsical and educational show combining images of the city by moonlight, gaslight, electric light, fire and lightning. Some of the images are old photographs, some are lithographs, some are artists’ renderings of events, some are humorous posters. It’s a history lesson in miniature, curated for an hour’s enjoyment. The arrangement is by category, not chronology: “Entertainment,” “Disaster,” “Business” and “Landmarks.”

Here are a few of my favorites from “Entertainment”:

philly-after-dark-3Four goofy posters from 1907 called “Drunk After Dark,” each with a silly poem, each showing the city at a radical tilt;

There is a photograph the Met Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets, before its celebrated recent renovation;

A lovely sepia print of the Academy of Music in 1875, with crowds coming and going in horse-drawn carriages and men in top hats;

Old movie theatres—all gone now— with marquees featuring big names: Judy Holliday, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye.

Expectably, the “Disaster” pictures are dramatic:

The 1838 destruction by fire of Pennsylvania Hall , the first building to be designated as a meeting place for abollitionists; four days after its openinig, it was destroyed by arson.

And, more than a century and a half later, the MOVE bombing.

And don’t miss “Jersey Lightning,” the first photograph of lightning, called “Jove’s Autograph,” one of many images of Philadelphia’s night sky.

[The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 219 S. 6th Street (facing Washington Square] Philly After Dark runs September 24-December 28, 2018philaathenaeum.org.

NOTE: Bruce Laverty, the show’s very knowledgeable curator, will give a free gallery talk on December12 @ 5:30pm.

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.