200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 131: “The Academy Gets a New Building ”

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colored photograph of the 1876 building
Hand-colored photograph of the Academy of Natural Sciences as it appeared following its completion in 1876. Logan Square is in the foreground. Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 49.

The Academy Gets a New Building

The Academy has had a number of homes in Philadelphia. These ranged, in the early decades, from rented rooms above a milliner’s shop on Second Street near Market to a converted church at 12th and Sansom. By the 1850s, the Academy occupied a substantial building at the corner of Broad and Sansom streets that was built expressly to house the institution’s burgeoning collections. But within a few decades, even that building proved inadequate. The Academy needed a new and more capacious abode.

With much anticipation, the Academy opened its new building at 19th and Race streets. It was 1876, the year of the national centennial. Like the celebration (located only a few miles away in Fairmount Park), the opening offered great promise for the future. Designed to resemble an imposing gothic cathedral, the building’s exterior featured elaborate stonework, arched doorways and windows, and even gargoyles. Visitors entering the building were met with a soaring central hall ringed with balconies and flanked by rows of cabinets filled with specimens and books.

But this grandeur was interrupted by unfinished brickwork on the south wall. The new building was always intended to be the first wing of a much larger structure. The trustees instructed the builders to leave this wide patch “exposed, like a beggar’s deformity, appealing to the generous and intelligent to contribute means to cover it.” The bricks remained exposed for another 16 years.

The Academy is still located at 19th and Race (now 19th and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway). Though it has undergone considerable expansion and renovation in the intervening years, you can still get a sense of its former appearance. As you enter the front door, look past the Admissions Desk at a short flight of stairs leading to the auditorium and the dioramas of North American Hall. That is where the patch of exposed brickwork once stood.

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