Alie’s 50th Philadelphia High School for Girls — Girl’s High — reunion was our “destination” as we drove up the East coast. Family and friends occupied most of our time, but I did get to play tourist on Saturday while she attended various functions. She had only been back once before, but it was a special place, and she enjoyed seeing old friends. Had there been “magnet schools” in the late 19th century when they were created, Girl’s High and Central, for boys and across the street, would have been that; they were ahead of their time.
First I visited the Reading Terminal Market, a big city farmers market under an old railroad terminal. It was interesting, but not particularly special as those things go. Nonetheless, I walked up and down the aisles past meat, seafood and vegetable markets, bakeries, candy stores and restaurants. One distinction would be the shops operated by members of various Pennsylvania “Dutch” denominations in their distinctive clothing and white caps for the women.
My surprise discovery was Christ Church Burial Ground near independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. I went there to pay homage to Benjamin Franklin’s grave which I found marked on my map. There was a two dollar entrance fee to help cover maintenance, and it was well worth it. Franklin’s tomb, produced according to his will, is a simple slab with the words “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.” Visitors have scattered pennies over it: “A penny saved is a penny earned.” I rather wish he had gone with the epitaph he wrote as a young man: “The body of B. Franklin, Printer. Like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding, lies here food for worms. But the work shall not be lost. For it will be as he believ’d appear once more in a new and more elegant edition corrected and improved by the Author.”
The burial ground is filled with Revolutionary War heroes and a few common men. Often where the stones were not legible, they had modern markers reproducing the original words. There are four signers of the Declaration of Independence, an act which took more courage than most know and which often cost those men dearly. There is a Jewish hero; his body, on the way to a pauper’s grave, was rescued by his friends and buried here. There is the resting place of the man who dug graves there for fifty years. Harking back to our recent Baltimore visit, commanders of both the Constellation and Constitution are there. And one modern tomb says “Sailor, Soldier, Safecracker.” To my surprise, I walked around looking at the inscriptions until time for a lunch on the street outside a deli.
When friends at her luncheon asked Alie what her husband was doing, she replied he was probably at the art museum. Of course, she was right. It was fun to see the tourists lined up to have their pictures taken by the statue of “Rocky,” his arms thrown up in the air in victory. And a visit just by myself gave me time to spend with my favorite portraits and figures. I could stand back to take in the composition and then get my nose within inches (under the watchful eye of suspicious guards) to see the brush strokes.
Dr. Albert Barnes grew up poor and rough in 19th Century Philadelphia. But he was able to attend Central and went on to get a medical degree. He founded a company to produce an antiseptic silver compound used to prevent infections and blindness in newborn’s eyes. This was in an era long before antibiotics were understood. He became wealthy and devoted his life to education (he was a friend and partner of educator/philosopher John Dewey) and to art collecting. He instituted classes in his factories for his workers. Finally, he sold his company a few months before the 1929 stock market crash in order to devote his life to education and art.
I think Barnes would be disappointed. His collection is housed in an absolutely beautiful building. But like many modern galleries, the beauty is inside, hidden from the city by walls. It is a far greater space than the collection needs, a monument to the architect and the committee that built it. But most distressing to me was the cost. If one is fortunate enough to be there on the first Sunday of the month, it is free. But on all other days, it costs $22 if one makes an appointment and $35 if one just wants to walk in, well beyond the reach of the common man Barnes valued. In a city that is predominantly African-American, the visitors inside were all well-dressed whites. I stood out in my jeans and beard.
Nonetheless it is an interesting collection including the largest collection of
Renoir in the world. It is displayed in the precise manner Barnes dictated for his original gallery in the suburbs. He was an interesting man and among the first to collect African art. He collected metal works like hinges and doorknockers. And the positioning of paintings and implements suggests he had a sense of humor. Pay the money and visit it if you like art.