The curators and their wares have trundled off to offices on the north side of the ornate building.
In their place off the landing, once demolition is complete, the academy will construct its first-ever light- and climate-controlled gallery for the exhibition of works on paper.
The Furness building itself, as Philbrick said, can be considered the academy's "greatest asset." But one of its strengths - its openness to natural light streaming through multiple skylights and windows - makes it an enemy to 75 percent the academy's collection - its 10,000 works on paper.
One "greatest asset" has been at war with another.
Watercolors, prints, drawings, sketchbooks - a paper cornucopia squirreled away - have rarely been on public view at all. Exposure to light leads to fading color and unstable, brittle paper.
"Light precludes showing works on paper," said Philbrick as he stepped into the denuded former office suite.
The space, which is toward the southeast corner of the building, has always served as offices and may have housed the academy presidential chamber in the years immediately after the building opened in 1876. Its tiny windows look out on the brick wall of the office building next door.
Now, plaster has been torn out of all three rooms - collectively about 1,400 square feet of floor space. Walls five bricks thick have been exposed and bashed open to provide visual and physical access from one space to another.
Openings in load-bearing walls have been topped with steel I-beams, which will be left visible when the new gallery opens, probably in September.
"It's our nod to Frank Furness," Philbrick said. "Furness left I-beams exposed. He very deliberately wanted to expose the technology."
I-beams can be seen, for instance, in the building's rotunda. "Ornate columns go up, and they're supporting I-beams," Philbrick said.
The works on paper gallery will feature two rooms for exhibition - primarily works from the collection, but occasionally special exhibitions. The third gallery will be a study gallery, said Anna Marley, curator of historical American art.
"Students will be able to work with a part of the collection they often didn't even know existed," she said.
Cozzolino, curator of modern art, displayed a few things from the academy's rich collection to illustrate just what has been withheld from view.
A Benjamin West compositional study for Penn's Treaty With the Indians, done in ink on brown wove paper in about 1771, is not often seen. An extremely unusual pastel portrait of John Scollay completed by John Singleton Copley in 1764 is rarely available.
"That's really, really special," said Cozzolino, gazing at the Copley.
He also showed a pastel portrait of Helen Biddle Griscom done by Cecilia Beaux in 1893; a Winslow Homer watercolor of a Bermuda seaside (1900); Grant Wood's The Good Gossip, one of a series of 1936 drawings completed for a deluxe edition of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street; a bold 1927 watercolor by Oscar Bluemner; and a small Robert Motherwell drawing from the 1960s series Lyric Suite. A recent acquisition, a drawing by Layla Ali, who had a show at the academy's Morris Gallery in 2007, was also out for a quick look.
Each work that Cozzolino and Marley brought out has been exhibited, but showings have been extremely rare. And once a work on paper has been in the light for an exhibition, museum practice is to return it to the vaults for years of rest.
The colorful small painting by Bluemner, for instance, was shown at the Whitney Museum about seven years ago. It will remain out of circulation for a few more years, Cozzolino said.
"Just to give it a rest," he said. "In a case like this, you really want to preserve those colors."
The debut show in the works on paper gallery, which is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, will most likely consist of recent donations and acquisitions, Philbrick said.
Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, email@example.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.