Changing Skyline: Bank has perfect bones for science museum

Chemistry is the subject of the new institution in the former First National Bank.

Posted: October 03, 2008

Banks will fail, as we've been reminded a little too often lately. But their buildings can still go on to lead long and productive lives, especially when they're constructed to weather more than a passing financial storm.

Such is the case with the former First National Bank at Third and Chestnut Streets, a grand old neoclassical survivor that today begins a new life as a museum devoted to the history of chemistry, run by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The renovation, led by Peter Saylor of SaylorGregg Architects, is not only meant to restore grandeur to the historic Chestnut Street bank, but to the chemistry profession itself.

The strands of history, science and commerce come together in Philadephia as they do in no other American city. This is where Robert McNeil salved our pain by inventing Tylenol, and where the geeks from the University of Pennsylvania set the stage for the Internet with the giant brain they called Eniac. With the opening of the $20 million Chemical Heritage museum, Philadelphia can now boast five science museums, including the Franklin Institute, the Wagner Free Institute, the Mutter Museum, and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Philadelphia's chemistry connection isn't new. It began with Benjamin Rush, the colonial-era polymath who was America's first chemistry professor. The city never stopped being an important research center. Yet at some point, chemists began to feel their field was losing the public's respect - no doubt as a result of the toxic effects of some of their creations.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation openly admits that the new museum is an attempt to remind people of chemistry's contributions to mankind. This public-relations subtext may explain why the exhibits, designed by the now-ubiquitous Ralph Appelbaum Associates, sometimes feel a bit disconnected from reality.

Still, it's fitting that the science museum should occupy the carapace of a departed financial institution, located in the city's historic heart, around the corner from where Ben Franklin lived and conducted many of his scientific experiments.

It has not been an easy journey for First National. Designed in 1865 by architect John McArthur Jr., who subsequently devoted three decades to willing Philadelphia's behemoth City Hall into existence, the bank was an anchor of what was America's original Wall Street.

In the 1950s, however, the interior was stripped bare of its two-story Doric columns and marble floors, and the bank reduced to a back office for the drive-up-window tellers. After being gobbled up by a larger institution, the proud bank became a branch, and then just another vacant building. By the time the foundation acquired the relic in 1995, the building was a wreck.

Saylor, who has become something of a museum doctor for Philadelphia's dusty exhibit halls, has given the battered bank a glistening new interior that is so ethereal and restrained, it virtually dissolves into McArthur's granite walls. It is a crisp, clear piece of work.

Saylor's minimalist intervention is the kind that evokes the past on an emotional level, rather than bludgeoning the senses with a completely literal re-creation. Yes, he put back a couple of Doric columns, but he describes them as a "flashback" to the old bank. You come away marveling at how much the integrity of truly great spaces resides in their proportions and heft. Even without McArthur's columns and plasterwork, the bank retains its essential dignity.

McArthur's banking hall originally soared four stories, although the building appears on the outside to be only two. (The architect repeated the trick at City Hall.) But during the 1950s assault on the bank, a floor was slipped into that immense volume of space to create two levels.

Saylor's firm couldn't do anything about the added second floor, which now houses the foundation's book collection. Instead, the designers made the remaining two-story space feel taller. They deluged the museum's single high-ceilinged room with light by reopening the immense arched windows on the bank's west-facing alley side, which leads to Robert Venturi's Franklin Court. About two-thirds of the way up, they installed a narrow mezzanine.

The purpose of the mezzanine level was to give the museum more display space. But the structure can't help but remind us of similar mezzanines that wind around so many of Chestnut Street's great banking halls.

Never mind that First National never had a balcony level, even when it was a full four stories. Saylor makes the structure his major architectural statement. Comprising opaque glass floors and clear glass railings, it defers entirely to McArthur's room. Exquisitely detailed, the walkway's angles are aligned perfectly with the original classical windows.

If only the same clear head had prevailed with the exhibits. Though Appelbaum's displays are gorgeous to look at, there's no real narrative linking the diverse chapters in the history of chemistry. This random approach reduces the story to sound-bite science. The most cringe-inducing moment comes when the museum feebly acknowledges that chemistry has not always been kind to our bodies or our planet - an effort so halfhearted that it tarnishes the enterprise with a "Better Living Through Chemistry" boosterism.

Yet you can't help but be fascinated, seeing the detritus of so many chemistry experiments. Once the foundation made up its mind to turn the old bank into a museum, it went on a collecting binge, gathering up a fabulous array of objects that include original vacuum light tubes, plastic Bakelite jewelry, toy chemistry sets, and an assortment of big gray machines for conducting chemical processes.

So many science museums dumb down the complexities of the universe, so the Chemical Heritage Foundation deserves credit for gamely taking on difficult concepts. It may take extra work to sort through the information, but at least visitors can do it in a space that is timeless.


Changing Skyline: If You Go

The Chemical Heritage Foundation museum, 315 Chestnut St., opens today with First Friday hours from 5 to 8 p.m. Regular hours will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday Admission is free. Information: 215-925-2222 or www.chemheritage.org.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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