Robert A.M. Stern’s Conservative Museum of the American Revolution Design Snuffs the Revolutionary Spirit

Robert A.M. Stern’s Conservative Museum of the American Revolution Design Snuffs the Revolutionary Spirit
A rendering of Robert A. M. Stern's Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia

On Tuesday, The American Revolution Center officially unveiled the design for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Intended to finally provide a proper roof for an archive of Revolution-era artifacts and manuscripts, the $150-million museum is expected to open in 2015 in Philadelphia's historic district, a mere stone's throw from the 1795 First Bank of the United States and William Strickland's 1834 Merchant's Exchange Building. An already jubilant unveiling ceremony was made even more so when philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest announced a $40-million challenge grant to give the fundraising campaign a generous running start, and president of The American Revolution Center Michael C. Quinn urged others to help "perpetuate the 'Spirit of '76.'" But for critics of the newly unveiled Robert A.M. Stern design, fundraising can only do so much, as the revolutionary spirit seems to be conspicuously absent in Stern's conservative rehashing of Georgian-style architecture.

The renderings made public on Tuesday depict a sunbathed brick building on the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets. White mouldings and stone archways provide contrasting accents to the sea of red brick, and large, asymmetrically arranged windows add a discreet sense of variation to the generally restrained façade. The building's crowning cylindrical cupola calls attention to the newest addition along Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park. "We want to make a building that is inviting to the public, but dignified," said Stern in The New York Times, "in which the architecture supports the intellectual and cultural mission of the institution."

Stern is no doubt delivering what was asked of him. In fact, the seasoned architect and Dean of the Yale's school of architecture is widely recognized for his unassuming adaptations of period styles, which carry with them Stern's personal manifestos against aspirations for formal originality. The brick-based Georgian style architecture to which Stern directly alludes was the dominant style of architecture in America at the time of the Revolution. It made perfect sense to the architect and his patrons, no doubt, to summon the 1776 American zeitgeist by recreating its built forms, an attempt to "Imagineer" visitors back into history, in the language of Walt Disney.

Having theoretically condemned the idea of innovating forms anew, Stern's architectural acumen comes through in the carefully planned circulations of his buildings. Case in point, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Inga Saffron applauds Stern's museum design for its willingness to engage with the surrounding city: on the north side, large windows offer views from the street into the building lobby, and on the south side sits a plaza that connects the museum store and café to the outdoors. On the inside, Stern's floor plan designates the ground-floor lobby for rotating exhibition galleries, while permanent galleries are elevated to the second floor for interested parties to explore upon ascending a sweeping staircase.

The praise, however, ends there. Saffron is one of several critics and locals who see Stern's conservative Georgian reproduction to be a lost opportunity for Philadelphia. Her criticism comes up against the cheers of neo-traditionalist advocates, who argue that a "historical" style is appropriate for a building that will not only house historical artifacts but also abut landmarks dating back one, even two centuries. However, as Hidden City Philadelphia writer Nathaniel Popkin points out, the Revolution museum's surroundings are sprinkled with buildings from various time periods: the neighboring First Bank of the United States boasts a grand neoclassical façade, and the Merchant Exchange Building is likewise a tribute to white stone and Renaissance-era tectonics. Also nearby are twinned cast-iron high-rises and other buildings that visibly embrace the advent of glass-and-steel construction.

To insist on the need to graft a "historical" building onto a historical site is to reduce the area's vast and varied history to a shallow, vague — not to mention confused — image of the past. But of greater offense is the architect and his patrons' confidence in evoking a historical era through Stern's trademark artistic imitation. As Saffron divulges in her review, "Stern's period buildings are rarely satisfying in the flesh... The flat expanses of the façade lack the loving detail and craft that mark real Georgian buildings and give them life. Modern details, like cheap-looking window frames, intrude on the period fantasy." Citing another local Stern creation, the McNeil Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Saffron describes the architect's historical rehashings as "just a step above the false fronts you see at highway restaurants like Outback Steakhouse or Taco Bell." In other words, Stern ignores the fact that the bygone atmosphere he attempts to recreate runs deep beneath the surface.

This is not to say that Stern's desire for the museum to harmonize with its historic surroundings has no merit. Not all architecture needs to make a strong statement about its geographical or temporal context — or a strong statement at all — and there is undoubtedly a time and place for neo-traditionalist allusions. However, especially in light of the elegant new Barnes Foundation posting up on the other side of Center City, the Museum of the American Revolution offers Philadelphia an exciting new institution stifled by its decidedly unadventurous architecture. By predicating its aesthetic on notions of tradition and familiarity, the museum tempers the thrill of the period it seeks to embody. Unless serious revisions are made, the "Spirit of' '76'" will come packaged in a building that denounces the fundamental notion of revolution.