Bastille to Broad Street: The French influence on Philadelphia architecture

Paris’s reputation as a a city of architectural beauty is long-held and its emblematic structures have influenced generations of Philadelphia architects and designers. This cultural exchange is the subject of Bastille to Broad Street: The Influence of France on Philadelphia Architecture, now on show at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of Arts.

Situated in an elegant little brownstone building on Washington Square, the Athenaeum is a special collections library with a focus on American architecture and interior design from 1800 to 1945. The photographs, objects (including a much smaller model of City Hall’s 37-foot William Penn statue), books, and drawings in Bastille to Broad Street are drawn from the library’s impressive collection, which includes about 400,000 architectural drawings, 300,000 photographs, and nearly 100,000 books. In addition to the exhibit space and associated items in the lobby, visitors should explore the beautiful reading rooms,  which are packed with fine and decorative arts.

The images in the exhibit are revelatory. Many of Philadelphia’s most iconic buildings—City Hall, the Free Library, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to name just a few—are thoroughly copied from famous Parisian structures. Photographs of City Hall next to the Louvre reveal the depth of inspiration which the latter gave to the former, making our seat of municipal government a French Renaissance style palace with French Second Empire ornamentation. Similarly, Girard College owes a striking debt to the La Madeleine church in the Place de Concorde, while the Eastern State Penitentiary, site of an annual mock Bastille Day celebration, takes architectural inspiration from the medieval French prison which gives the annual French holiday its name.

Nowhere is France’s influence more evident in our modern city than in the buildings and landscaping of Philadelphia’s most Parisian boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Designed by French architect Paul Phillippe Cret, a long-time professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the thoroughfare is modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris, with its wide span, tree-lined stretches, and open surroundings. Cret added further French flair to the Parkway with his Beaux-Arts design of the Rodin Museum.

Cret’s compatriot, landscape designer Jacques Gerber, was invited to Philadelphia by wealthy businessman and art collector Joseph Widener to redesign the gardens of his Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, PA. Gerber refined Cret’s concept of the Ben Franklin Parkway, making it more of a open urban corridor.

Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer and his African American junior architect Julian Abele completed the French expanse of the Parkway with the French Neo-Classical Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose central structure bears a striking resemblance to La Madeleine. The Free Library and the Municipal Court on the Parkway were so slavishly copied from other buildings on the Place de Concorde—the two wings of the Crillon Hotel—that even Cret took exception.

Other images show French influence extending to Philadelphia environs: Versailles imitated at Whitemarsh Hall in Springfield Township; a French country village recreated at the Newbold Estate in Cheltenham Township. PIFA constructed a 81-foot Eiffel Tower in the Kimmel Center, but you don’t need to visit this hub to see imitations of the Parisian sights. As Bastille to Broad Street makes clear, they are all around us in our own beautiful city.

Location
219 S. 6th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Published by PhilaCulturati.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.