Historical Markers
Paul Philippe Cret Historical Marker
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Paul Philippe Cret

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
516 Woodland terrace, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
May 23, 1992

Behind the Marker

1923 was a banner year for Paul Philippe Cret, Philadelphia's best-known architect. Two great art collectors, Julius Mastbaum (1876-1926), a pioneer in the film industry, and Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1950), the inventor of the antiseptic Argyrol and a marketing innovator who first sold pharmaceuticals directly to hospitals and physicians from his factory, requested that Cret design museums for their treasures. Mastbaum owned the world's largest collection of works by French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917); Barnes held the largest numbers of paintings by the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1814-1919), impressive numbers of works by Paul Cezanne (69) and Henry Matisse (60) - who came to America to execute the mural at the museum's entrance - and an outstanding collection of the African and Asian art that had begun to inspire Picasso and other European artists.
Color image of the front of the Rodin Museum building, with the sculpture of the "Thinker" in the foreground
Rodin Museum

Mastbaum had his Rodin Museum constructed on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was first planned by the firm of Trumbauer, Zantinger, and Cret in 1907 and then revised in 1917 by Jacques Greber "to furnish a direct, dignified and interesting approach from the heart of the business community and the administrative quarter of the city, through the region of educational activities grouped around Logan Square (the Free Library, the Natural History Museum, and the Franklin Institute), to the artistic center to be developed around the Fairmount Plaza, at the entrance to Philadelphia's largest and most beautiful park."

Philadelphia had lagged behind American cities such as Boston (the Fenway) and Cleveland (the Oval), around which museums, universities, historical societies, and other cultural institutions had been built in the late nineteenth century. Even Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, boasted the newly-built markerState Capitol and adjacent grounds, constructed in 1906, which were the capstone of the "City Beautiful" movement begun by markerMira Lloyd Dock and markerJ. Horace McFarland to establish parks and park-like neighborhood to relieve urban blight.

Philadelphia did not catch up until 1928 when the present Art Museum opened. It was two years after the neighboring Rodin museum finally allowed the city to remove its art collection from Fairmount Park's Exhibition Hall, which had been the main building for nation's centennial exhibition back in 1876. And then there was almost nothing to put in the museum, for the "old money" that managed the Fairmount Park Art Association, as well as the museum and the parkway for the city, had run afoul of the city's most prestigious art collectors. First Museum director Fiske Kimball's Herculean efforts could not budge Barnes or the city's richest man, Peter A. B. Widener, both of whom had worked their way up from slaughterhouses to Philadelphia's Central High School (Widener made his money in streetcars) to place their collections in the beautiful Greek sandstone temple that now towered over the Schuylkill River.

Kimball only secured the vast, predominantly Renaissance collection of John J. Johnston, another Central High graduate who had begun life as the son of a blacksmith, and then gone on to become one of America's foremost corporate lawyers. (Johnston successfully defended U. S. Steel against anti-trust laws and later turned down an appointment to the Supreme Court.) Widener's heirs, angered both by social snubs and the City of Philadelphia's refusal to take their art unless the estate first paid the taxes on it, offered their father's collection instead to the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., built by Pittsburgh collector Andrew Mellon, whose son Paul accepted with alacrity.
A pencil sketch architectural drawing of the Jules E. Mastbaum Foundation, Transverse section
Jules E. Mastbaum Foundation

Barnes was even more cantankerous than Widener, whom he called a "boob." He shaped his collection to promote his own democratic theory of art education. Although Barnes understood that it required prolonged and strict training to become a fine artist, anyone - with the proper Barnesian education - could become a great appreciator of the arts, and thus have their lives elevated. During his lifetime, Barnes opened his collection only to students in his classes and a few lucky invited guests. Barnes placed his classical and modern paintings and crafts side by side to demonstrate the similar design principles that underlay all creative art.

In the 1920s, Barnes became friends with Horace Mann Bond, the president of Lincoln University. Before he died in 1951, Barnes left control of the Foundations the Board of Trustees to this African-American University. In 1993, a few years after the death of Violette DeMazia, Barnes' longtime assistant who had run the school -and limited visitors - since his death, paintings from the Barnes collection went on a one-time, worldwide tour. Revenues from the tour, however, failed to shore up the Foundation's shrinking endowment. The late 1990s witnessed growing pressures to move the Foundation to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

Cret was able to design appropriate structures for both his patrons. Opened in 1929, the small, classical Rodin Museum boasts a cast of the sculptor's most famous creation, "The Thinker," in the yard near its pool. The spectacular "Gates of Hell" - which Rodin worked on for thirty-seven years and that Mastbaum had cast for the first time - is located over its entrance. It is a small, almost hidden jewel on the north side of Twenty-Second Street amidst the monumental structures on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Barnes' twenty-four-room gallery and twelve-room residence in Lower Merion incorporated African motifs into its imposing neo-Egyptian façade.

At the same time, Cret was working on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Completed in 1927, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1939, when the Golden Gate Bridge was completed across San Francisco Bay. Among his other famous works are the Pan American Union Building and Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D. C., the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the Washington Memorial Arch at Valley Forge.

Educated at the academies at Lyon (his birthplace) and Paris, Cret's outstanding draftsmanship led him to study at the University of Pennsylvania which appointed him professor of architecture upon receiving his doctorate in 1907. Architecturally speaking, Cret followed the Beaux-Arts style pioneered in America by McKim, Mead, and White, who designed the Boston Public Library, New York's Pennsylvania Railroad Station, and the early buildings at the Columbia University. It bore considerable resemblance to the monumental architecture of the new German Empire, late nineteenth-century French public buildings such as the Pantheon, and Roman imperial architecture in its monumentality. It reflected an age in which the United States and European powers, confident of their historical destiny, were building empires. A reaction against the gingerbread, clutter, and whimsy of the Victorian Era, it was emphatically masculine with decorative touches reserved for peripheral locations on columns and windows. In the 1920s and 1930s, in the aftermath of World War I and with the onset of the Great Depression, architects turned to an Art Deco style.

Through his numerous students and his position as Consulting Architect for the American Battle Monuments' Commission, Cret influenced the direction of American architecture. In the decades that followed, variants on Beaux Arts Architecture dominated American's conceptions of how our heroes should be honored. Only in the late twentieth century - as the controversy over Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C. demonstrates - has this celebratory mode begun to change. Lin also designed the Peace Chapel on the campus of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania consisting of stones set in a line leading to a circle that may be viewed as graves ending in reconciliation amid a beautiful natural landscape. The Vietnam Memorial in Reading, Pennsylvania, where a veteran looks sadly at the names of local soldiers who died, is another fine example of the new war commemorative art.

Although Philadelphia has never been known as an avant-garde art center, the City of Brotherly Love boasts an active artistic scene. The markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts owns one of the nation's most important collections of American art. Thanks to bequests from other Philadelphians, notably the McIlhenny and Barra Foundations, the Philadelphia Museum of Art now ranks among the nation's finest; unique attractions include the four Asian Temples on the second floor and the world's finest collection of the works of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) one of the great artistic innovators of the twentieth century.

Since the 1990s, the city has promoted downtown Broad Street as the "Avenue of the Arts." Beginning with the African-American Freedom Theater, PAFA, and spectacular rooms from different historical periods in the Masonic Temple north of City Hall, south of Market Street it also includes the Merriam, Carl Prince, and Wilma Theaters, Academy of Music (built in 1857), University of the Arts, and the new Kimmel Orchestra Hall.
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