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Philadelphia: The city of art and soul

Chris Coplans finds that major and memorable works aren’t just confined to Philly’s gallery walls

How do you move $30bn-worth of art six miles without it getting stolen? When the Barnes Foundation controversially moved its collection from its rather inaccessible suburban mansion to its sparkling new city-centre “campus” on Philadelphia’s Cultural Corridor earlier this year, even the directors and curators were kept out of the loop, such was the fear of hijack or heist.

The largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world was amassed by the pharmaceutical magnate Albert C Barnes.

From the point of view of the collector, the artworks should never have been moved in the first place. He had a deep-rooted hatred of what he saw as an “elitist” Philadelphia art establishment.

His collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos, not to mention a few Titians, El Grecos and Tintorettos – and he tried hard to ensure that, even after he died, “they” would never get their paws on his prized collection. He also limited public access to just two days a week. But Barnes’s loss is the City of Brotherly Love’s gain, as Philly (no one calls it Philadelphia) can now be counted as one of the world’s leading art and cultural destinations.

It took a sequence of judicial battles to make this happen. As stipulated by the courts, the architects have recreated the original rooms from the Merion mansion but transformed the viewing experience with the addition of skylights and the use of state-of-the-art light-filtering technology.

Gone is the gloom of the original house.

Now, the vibrant Renoirs dazzle and dance, the Cézannes seduce and dominate, and the specially commissioned Matisse triptych mural, The Dance II, playfully illuminates the wall above the oversized Palladian windows. I was instantly bewitched, any reservations about moving the collection dissolving in this new-found light.

The way Barnes insisted that his collection be hung – cheek by jowl with masterpieces stacked one above another – means the intensity of the experience is almost overpowering.

I staggered out, visually intoxicated, on to adjoining Logan Square, which is actually a rather grand French circle. Here I recuperated in a delightful little café, Milk & Honey, in the newly created Sister Cities Park on the edge of the circle.

The relocation of the Barnes collection has created one of America’s most concentrated and impressive boulevards of art. On this leafy section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, modelled on the Champs-Élysées, the Barnes’ next-door neighbour is the Rodin Museum, which has just undergone a massive refurbishment.

Meanwhile, a short saunter up the leafy Parkway at the southern end of Fairmont Park is the imposing Philadelphia Museum of Art, America’s third-biggest art museum. The museum is currently undergoing renovations designed by Frank Gehry to increase space.

On top of all that, dotted around Logan Square are some of Philly’s finest institutions and museums.

These include the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul; the historic Public Library; the Franklin Institute Science Museum; and the Academy of Natural Sciences Museum, the country’s oldest natural history museum. (For culture vultures with deep pockets, overlooking Logan Square is the luxuriously refined Four Seasons Hotel.) And, if you prefer your art al fresco, the Mural Arts Program (muralarts.org) has created over 3,500 murals over the last 25 years and many are dotted around the city centre. The recently completed How Philly Works, which can be seen at the airport, measures nearly 85,000 square feet.

A few blocks from The Barnes, on Broad Street at Vine Street, is Meg Saligman’s epic The Evolving Face of Nursing – a wondrously ambitious new mural that incorporates LED light into the work. Faces appear, dissolve and disappear again and technology renders the apparent hidden workings of the human body. It is at its most dramatic at night. My favourite Saligman mural is her haunting Tribute to the Flag painted on the side of an industrial building in the aftermath of 11 September.

It’s pretty easy to get around. Philly is fast becoming a very bike-friendly city, with cycle lanes throughout the centre. Although most of the major sights are easily walkable, I was keen to get out into the parks, ’burbs and ’hoods, so I rented a bike from Philadelphia Bike Tour – which drops off bikes to your hotel.

I headed to Fairmount Park, one of the world’s largest urban parks, covering nearly 14 square miles. It stretches along the banks of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek and forms part of an extensive green belt. I followed the bike path along the river bank past Boathouse Row, a picturesque collection of rowing clubs renowned for their Tudor-style Victorian buildings, before cutting into the park itself.

Fairmount Park is home to some splendid early American colonial era homes, including the Georgian-style Mount Pleasant, which President John Adams described as “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania” – and he wasn’t far wrong. The largest home in the park is Strawberry Mansion, built in the 1790s. Other homes worth visiting are Woodford, Laurel Hill and Lemon Hill Mansion and if you are searching for a zing of zen peace, the picturesque Japanese House and Garden is well worth a visit.

To spend your time without pedalling, the city centre and historic district are easily navigated on foot. It’s less than a mile from Penn Square and City Hall – the largest municipal building in the US in the heart of downtown – to Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River, where William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, first arrived in 1682.

At Penn’s Landing, you can walk south to the Moshulu, a 1904 four-mast sailing ship, now a floating restaurant. From here, you can take a dinner cruise on the Spirit of Philadelphia.

Atop City Hall is a massive 37ft bronze statue of William Penn and what is affectionately known as “Penn’s Penis”. The official story is that Penn is holding the treaty he signed – judge for yourself.

I ended up in the cobbled streets of the historical district, which is awash with revolutionary history, not to mention America’s oldest icecream shop, the decadent Franklin Fountain on Market Street. Around the corner on Chestnut is the sumptuous Corn Exchange National Bank with its unique domed clock tower.

Entrance to the informative Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the US Constitution drafted, and the Liberty Bell Pavilion is free.

I’m not sure how Dr Barnes would have felt about his beloved collection cosying up with the city’s elite. Let’s not forget that this was a man who delighted in humiliating his enemies. (He kicked out Lord Rothschild from his mansion for “showing off,” and wrote “Nuts” to TS Eliot when he sought admission.) The irony is that when Barnes proposed that his foundation become part of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, his offer was rebuffed. But the change means that the people of Philadelphia are the real beneficiaries. And just maybe, the cunning collector knew that all along.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) which offers three nights room-only at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown from £749 per person, including flights from Heathrow.

Seeing there

  • The Barnes Foundation (001 215 278 7200; barnesfoundation.org).
  • Rodin Museum (001 215 763 8100; rodinmuseum.org).
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art (001 215 763 8100; philamuseum.org).
  • Basilica of Saints (001 215 561 1313; cathedralphila.org).
  • The Franklin Institute (001 215 448 1200; fi.edu).
  • The Academy of Natural Sciences Museum (001 215 299 1000; ansp.org).
  • Japanese House (00 215 878 5097; shofuso.com).
  • Bike Tour (001 215 514 3124; philadelphiabiketour.com).

Eating there

  • Milk & Honey, Sister Cities Park (001 215 387 6455; milkandhoneymarket.com).
  • Moshulu, Penn’s Landing (001 215 923 2500; moshulu.com).
  • The Franklin Fountain (001 215 6271899; franklinfountain.com).

More information

  • coplans.co.uk for more photography.
  • philadelphiausa.travel
  • DiscoverAmerica.com