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Haunting Franklin's House
Venturi, Scott Brown question plans to alter their Philly masterwork
The National Park Service is preparing a renovation of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates' Franklin Memorial without the firm's input.
Courtesy NPS

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have never been known to go quietly over anything, much less an extensive alteration to one of their most acclaimed projects. On Monday, the National Park Service sent out a press release describing plans—not of Venturi and Scott Brown’s design—for “the ambitious and exciting rehabilitation” of the underground museum at Franklin Court in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park.

Also known as the Ghost House, Franklin Court and the museum dedicated to Benjamin Franklin’s life and work were designed by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) in 1976 as a kind of Harold-with-a-purple-crayon version of the great man’s mansion and print shop. It is arguably one of the most gratifying projects of the postmodern period in successfully integrating historicist subtleties with modernist clarities.

The new entry to the underground museum, part of a renovation designed by Quinn Evans Architects, is meant to be more inviting and accommodate more visitors.

The Park Service’s press release, which said that the Washington, D.C. firm Quinn Evans Architects has designed a new glass entry pavilion with gift shop, staircase, and elevator leading to the underground museum, came somewhat belatedly considering that the project has been in the works for two years and that the public comment period that officially commenced on April 21 ends next Friday on May 15.

Acknowledging that the museum interiors and exhibition installations might well need an update and that even the new entry pavilion might be necessary to deal with some 250,000 annual visitors, Denise Scott Brown was however not pleased that Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates had not been approached to do the renovation and had only recently been offered the opportunity to comment on the proposed design. “They need to know there’s going to be a big reaction,” she said when sharing a letter critical of the new design that the architects submitted to the Independence National Historical Park (INHP).

A ramp that leads down to the exhibits meant to evoke a colonial road will be replaced with a new lobby and stairs.

In a phone interview, the chief of INHP’s Division of Cultural Resources Management, Doris Fanelli, said that because the project was “moving quickly,” the National Park Service selected the preservation firm Quinn Evans from a pre-approved list rather than approach VSBA, who are not on the list. This does not, however, fully explain how the installation designs have been turned over to the British exhibition designers, Casson Mann, primarily known for their work on the Cabinet War Rooms at the Churchill Museum in London.

The new design does not infringe upon the Ghost House. “That is the work of a master!” said Fanelli. It does dramatically alter the entrance to the VSBA-designed museum. Where once carved posts held up a canvas awning and a pew-like brick bench extending along the length of the west wall, there will now be a glass enclosure with an upward raking metal roof.

Some of the new exhibits, designed by British firm Casson Mann, which are part of the renovation.

In their letter, Venturi and Scott Brown write that “the Neomodern aesthetic seems confusingly close in character to the Ghost structure and out of keeping with the mellow brick, stone, and wood of the site elements.” They also take issue with the lack of sheltered waiting space, the sudden plunging stairs that replace a ramp meant to invoke a Colonial road and provide a processional experience through the building, and the absence of inviting colors, communicative signs, and hangings in the lobby.

More offensive still, they write, is how the addition alters the original museum entry experience, which was tied into former urban planner Edmund Bacon’s greenway plan for Society Hill. “They don’t realize all the thinking that went into this,” said Scott Brown in a phone interview.

Venturi, Scott Brown's entryway (left) and Quinn Evans', as seen from beyond the "Ghost House." (Click to zoom)

The current project was initiated as part of the National Park Service Centennial and its challenge program. The Pew Foundation is committing $6 million and raising $6 million more for the renovation project that is expected to go into construction this fall and be completed within 18 months. “They keep telling us they think we’re wonderful,” Scott Brown said. “And they want a letter saying we love the scheme. But it’s a whole other ball game.”

Julie V. Iovine