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Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts finds its place on North Broad

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The oldest art school and museum is changing along with the North Broad corridor

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is in the middle of a multi-million dollar makeover.
Photo by Tom Crane

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is the first and oldest fine arts school and museum in the country. Yet despite its age, the 212-year-old institution on North Broad is looking better than ever—and it’s makeover is really only just getting started.

PAFA is $16 million through its $25 million capital campaign, PAFA First, which launched in September 2016 as a way to preserve its historic buildings and art collections and enhance the institution, bringing it up to speed with the ongoing transformation happening up and down the North Broad corridor.

“For the past 50 years we’ve been here, watching what’s been happening around us,” said PAFA’s president and CEO David Brigham on a recent visit. “We realized that we wanted to not only contribute to the change on North Broad, but also benefit from it.”

Next year, some of PAFA’s blockbuster enhancements of the main building will debut: A 275-seat auditorium, a new gallery space featuring students’ work, and temperature-controlled storage facility to house the museum’s growing art collection. And that’s just the plan for the building’s basement, led by DLR Group, the same design firm that led the renovations of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Renderings by DLR Group

The basement level of the Hamilton Building will feature a new auditorium, gallery space, and storage facility.

But in reality, PAFA’s transformation has been slowly but surely taking place in bits and pieces for the past two decades. First, there was the school’s move from Cherry Street to its current location in an automobile showroom next to the National Historic Landmark building. That move was partially paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which went on to build the Pennsylvania Convention Center across the street.

That move came with a renovation of the 11-story, 300,000-square-foot Hamilton building, turning the warehouse into sculpture, printing, and painting studios with sweeping views of Center City. The Lenfest Plaza came soon after in 1999, connecting the school and the museum together via a paved public space.

Frank Furness’ incorporation of skylights into the National Landmark Building’s design was groundbreaking at the time.
Photo by Melissa Romero

The Historic Landmark Building shines again

But a big chunk of the capital campaign funds have already gone toward restoring and preserving the Historic Landmark building, designed by Frank Furness and George Hewitt in 1876. The iconic jewelry box building that features Furness’s signature ornate architectural details, including gold and silver leaf detailing both inside and out, was in need of great repair.

Work on the roof included the replacement of skylights, stone restoration, and replacement of copper gutters. The restoration of the original brick chimney and a new boiler system amounted to $2 million in repairs alone.

Work is still ongoing at the landmark building. Next up, the building will be made ADA compliant, with a handicap accessible entrance and restroom.

Bringing transparency to North Broad

But perhaps the least expensive effort of the $25 million campaign will be PAFA’s most important yet: A $4.1 million cosmetic change to the facade of the Hamilton Building, including an LED lighting program, new signage, and the opening up the first two floors of the building.

Already this year, the transparent Broad Street Studio debuted on the corner of North Broad and Lenfest Plaza, where students and artists paint and sculpt in a glass-enclosed box. Meanwhile, the first two floors of the Hamilton building will be opened up and lit up by an LED lighting system similar to that found at the Masonic Temple and City Hall up the street.

“It will help wake up the building,” says Brigham. “It can be hard to notice a building in the urban context.”

But most of all, Brigham says, the hope is that the slight cosmetic upgrades will enhance PAFA’s presence along North Broad. “We knew our neighborhood was changing,” he says, “and we knew we wanted to be a part of it.”