Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Panel and Audience Discussion, “Athens of America”

One of the three co-editors of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Howard Gillette, welcomed audience members to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He explained the Encyclopedia as an online, civic project to increase understanding of Philadelphia and the surrounding region from the city’s founding to the present. The digital encyclopedia volume will provide a comprehensive, authoritative reference source for the greater Philadelphia area. He explained the Greater Philadelphia Roundtable series as a partnership of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, presented in cooperation with numerous civic partners. The Roundtable programs give audience members the opportunity to raise questions and suggest topics for inclusion in the encyclopedia. This program has also been supported in part by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People initiative on American history. Gillette thanked program sponsors Taller Puertorriqueno and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as series cosponsors for their ongoing support for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

The phrases “Athens of America” and “Athens of the Western World” emerged in the early 1800s as references to Philadelphia’s dominance in arts and culture. This discussion focused on Philadelphia as a cultural center, especially in the visual arts. The panel was moderated by Kim Sajet, president and CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Sajet began the discussion with a look at outside influences in Philadelphia. She explained the Greek origins of the city’s name from philos meaning “love” and adelphos meaning “brother.” Sajet then introduced the panel members: Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carmen Febo San Miguel of Taller Puertorriqueño, and David Brownlee of the University of Pennsylvania. Each panelist had selected one image that symbolizes the larger meaning of the “Athens of America” slogan.

First, Kirtley spoke about her essay, “What City Was Once Known As ‘The Athens of America’?”, which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, September 11, 2011. Philadelphia embraced the concept of “Athens of America” from 1790 to 1840, although the term was being used to describe the city before those dates. As Philadelphia developed as a center for commerce, the city’s intellectual life flourished simultaneously, most notably with the founding of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the architecture of the city helped to attract the federal government to Philadelphia. From that time on, the arts flowered in Philadelphia during a unique moment when classical art was being imitated and the national government was looking at the democracy of ancient Athens. In this époque, Philadelphia took a leading role in setting the artistic tone for the new nation, especially with the establishment of artistic institutions like the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the Walnut Street Theatre.

Sajet pointed to images of buildings in Philadelphia that represent the idea of “Athens of America” such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, the portal to the Rodin Museum, the Fairmount Waterworks, and some proposed sketches of City Hall, which looks very different today. As a motif for the evening, she suggested that Philadelphia had adapted the notion of an atmosphere of liberty subscribed to by the “Athens of America.”

Kirtley’s keystone image for the evening was a picture of a conservator cleaning the surfaces of an 1808 painted chair at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This scene represents the lasting legacy of the “Athens of America” for Philadelphia as a center for both arts and sciences, in the past and the present. Here, one uses the most contemporary yet simple methods for cleaning delicate surfaces. Kirtley imagines the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a protector of the patrimony of Philadelphia.

Sajet then asked Brownlee to consider those who have been historically excluded from the idea of the “Athens of America.” She posited that Philadelphia no longer sits as the “Athens of America” and is shadowed by New York City as an international artistic center. Brownlee, however, disagreed with Sajet and quickly came to the defense of the modern Philadelphia art scene. His image for the evening was a photograph of architect Louis Kahn teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in about 1970. The school’s architecture department crafted the leading program in the nation for almost the entire twentieth century. Born in Estonia, Kahn grew up in North Philadelphia, graduated from the Philadelphia public school system, took free art classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial, and received a fellowship to attend the University of Pennsylvania. For Brownlee, this picture symbolizes Philadelphia’s enduring, powerful leadership role in the arts and culture of the United States. Thinking about the “Athens of America” title, he noted that Philadelphians adopted the nickname to define themselves by newness and innovation in a way of reinventing an imaginary Athens of change in the present.

Sajet commented that Philadelphia is often perceived as an industrial city driven by constant movement and innovation. Brownlee added Greek art and architecture had only been discovered and defined by the new science of archeology at the end of the eighteenth century before being put into order by a new science of history writing shortly after. So, in the nineteenth century Philadelphia’s arts continued to take inspiration from new thinking, energized by the city’s growing industrial sector. For example, Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, admired for its uncompromising realism, reflects the real energy, vitality, materialism, and material accomplishments of the nineteenth century. This tradition continued into the twentieth century with some of the most important new ideas in the art of architecture being made or remade with, for example, the construction of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) building, the largest modernist monument at the time.

Sajet directed the conversation back to the idea that the “Athens of America” on one hand leads to a reflection and interpretation of democracy, while on the other hand it can be quite visually intimidating, reflecting conformity, exclusion, and privilege. She asked Carmen Febo San Miguel to speak about the notion of place, family, and memory in art. Her defining image for the evening was Pepón Osorio’s I have a story to tell you… (2003). Febo San Miguel connected the conversation to the history of immigration in Philadelphia and the city’s dynamic tradition of commerce. In many ways, the clean lines and precise forms associated with classical art and architecture can exclude certain audiences. In Osorio’s piece, one finds similar lines and patterns used to represent a humble home that could be found in any country or any place, but that clearly identify with his country of origin, Puerto Rico, and to the rest of Latin America, to construct a story of immigration. His art communicates the need to create an individual identity, the desire to carve a personal space, and the hope for new opportunities.

Additionally, Sajet challenged the phrase “Athens of America” to be a contemporary term. To what extent does it still exist today? Is it still real or are Philadelphians holding onto an expired past? How has its meaning changed in recent decades? She argued that the slogan had always existed as more of an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. Is there a single concept that can describe Philadelphia’s art and culture? Sajet quoted Kirtley’s argument that the “Athenians were equal opportunity offenders” and asked her to expand on this thought. Kirtley explained that the Athenians borrowed the arts of conquered territories at will, and then configured them to create a Greek aesthetic. Brownlee commented that the eighteenth-century notion of Greece and Athens was, in fact, an invention of the eighteenth century. In the same manner, we in the present can configure Athens to represent what we need it to be. Sajet asked Febo San Miguel to share what the “Athens of America” means to her. She argued that if Philadelphia aspired to a higher level of art, brutalism must be part of that aspiration. If anything, the “Athens of America” is not pure, but is a fierce mixing, borrowing, sharing, and reinventing of artistic ideas.

Next, Sajet spoke about her symbolic image for the discussion, Zoe Strauss sharing her art at affordable prices under the I-95 highway in South Philadelphia. A Philadelphia native, Strauss has risen to national fame and was featured in the 2006 Whitney Museum of American Art biennial. Sajet argued that a specific Philadelphia style does exist and it can be defined by a gritty, urban, and accessible medium.

Sajet asked the panelists to consider the future of art in Philadelphia. What can be identified now to inspire tomorrow’s “Athens of America”? Kirtley used images of proposed plans for the expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, renovations to the gardens of the Rodin Museum, and major renovations to the apron of City Hall at Dilworth Plaza to illustrate her ideas. She explained these plans as the reemergence of the atmosphere of liberty along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to attract and reach a larger audience. Then, Sajet cited the enormous statue of paintbrush across from the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center in Lenfest Plaza at the Academy of Fine Arts. Speaking about the future of the arts in Philadelphia, Febo San Miguel noted that the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture has selected Philadelphia to host its annual conference in October 2012. This will be the San Antonio-based center’s first conference held on the east coast, specifically in Philadelphia to recognize the city as a diverse cultural center with a thriving Latino cultural life.

To define Athens in the twenty-first century, Brownlee argued, one must think of Philadelphia as an enormously industrial city which has reinvented itself as a post-industrial city. He pointed to the destruction of the Broad Street railroad station Penn Center the decaying waterfront area that has been restored as Society Hill. Plans to restore the city’s waterfronts as green ribbons to preserve the environment and connect neighborhoods.  Sajet contributed that the urban pop-up gardens in Center City from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the city’s first green roof bus shelter across from City Hall contribute to Philadelphia’s artistic vision for the future. She added that an increasing number of art students, especially at the Academy of Fine Arts, Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and Moore College of Art and Design, as well as artists participating in the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, Philly Fringe Festival, print and contemporary art for Philgrafika, and the Random Acts of Culture project with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. All of these artists, festivals, programs, and organization have brought a wonderful, refreshing, new energy to the city that reminds Philadelphians to aspire for greatness in arts and culture.

At this point in the program, audience members were invited to pose questions to the panel. The first question asked the panel to consider Independence Hall, the First Bank of the United States, and other building around Independence Mall and how this aesthetic fits with the idea of “Athens of America.” Brownlee explained that Independence Hall was built as the statehouse of a province of the British empire and in many respects, reflected architecturally exactly the aesthetic against which the artistic leaders of the Greek revival period in the American Republic were trying to turn. To see their artistic liberty at work, look at the First Bank of the United States, the face of a new architecture complete with white columns. Kirtley added that Independence Hall was the largest building in the colonies at the time and philosophically, it helped to establish Philadelphia as the political and commercial, then artistic center.

Another audience member commented that in addition to arts, Athens was also a center of invention and science, which resonates with Ben Franklin’s inventiveness and the founding of technical and scientific universities in Philadelphia. Kirtley agreed and mentioned her slide from the beginning of the program showing a conservator at work. She spoke about Benjamin Franklin and his leadership in establishing organizations and academies to encourage, quoted from his mission statements for the American Philosophical Society, “useful knowledge.” Sajet also pointed to the slide showing The Gross Clinic, a wonderful, realist example of the developing fields of science and medicine in Philadelphia.

The third question from the audience asked the panel if they knew of any plans for development along the waterfront of the Delaware River, specifically concerning the USS United States. Brownlee said that a foundation had been established to raise money to preserve the ship.  With a generous donation by Gerry Lenfest, the organization had acquired the ship and now needed to find it a new home.

Next, the panel briefly discussed Philadelphia as a center for banking and finance, principally in the early nineteenth century when Nicholas Biddle managed the Second Bank of the United States, which is not unlike a Greek temple. Kirtley mentioned Anthony Drexel as a central figure in the economic development of Philadelphia and called him the father of banking and finance in the city.

Another audience member cited the Athenaeum of Philadelphia as a supporting piece of the “Athens of America.” Kirtley noted that another Athenaeum was founded in Boston seven years earlier, which created competing monikers between the two cities. Brownlee observed that Edinburgh has been dubbed as the “Athens of the North” and Dublin as the “Athens of Hibernia.”  Febo San Miguel commented that this idea refers back to the tradition of making Athens a symbol of what you need it to be.

The last question from the audience addresses the darker side of the meaning of “Athens of America.” For example, in both Athens and Philadelphia, slave labor built much of the cities for centuries. Febo San Miguel confirmed that a harsher side of this phrase certainly does exist. She argued that it reflected more aspiration than reality and we must work to change the existing reality into a state of openness and inclusion.

After the question and answer session, the audience divided into several smaller groups to add ideas and comments to the program.  (These have been added to the “Nominate a Topic” list on the web site of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.)

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  1. […] ostensibly for similar reasons, but I remain somewhat confused by that association.  A recent roundtable in Philadelphia discussed the association between Athens and Philadelphia.   A quick google scholar search on […]

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