Memorial Hall’s famed 60-foot dome and granite façade were restored as
part of an $88 million adaptive-reuse project for the Please Touch Museum.
Built in 1875 to serve as the art gallery for the Centennial International Exhibition in Fairmount Park, Memorial Hall stands as one of the great civic structures in Philadelphia. The neoclassical building, designed by Fairmount Park Commission engineer Hermann J. Schwarzmann, was one of the first buildings in America to be designed according to the principles of the Beaux Arts movement. Its signature design, highlighted by an iron-and-glass dome adorned with a 23-foot-tall statue of Columbia, has been emulated by architects across the globe, including those of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Art.
Despite its celebrated past and prominence in the worldwide architecture community, by the 1950s years of delayed maintenance and neglect had left Memorial Hall in dire need of restoration. The situation was exacerbated by a revolving door of tenants that included an industrial arts school, an art museum, a recreation center, a sound recording studio, even a police station. In 2000, the building had to be closed to the public.
In 2002, Memorial Hall received a much-needed jolt when the Please Touch Museum finalized plans to relocate there. The $88 million restoration and adaptive-reuse project took nearly six years from concept through construction, which concluded with the grand opening on October 18, 2008. The project entailed a complete restoration of the exterior granite façade, the 60-foot dome, and all interior paint, plaster, and marble—as well as construction of an addition that houses the museum's cherished, hundred-year-old Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel.
The team cleverly adapted the existing spaces for the exhibits and museum functions. An indoor swimming pool added in 1962 presented the perfect location to “plant” a soaring artificial tree for the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland exhibit. A dark, decrepit maintenance tunnel in the rear of the building was converted into a bright, colorful entrance for large groups walking from the bus drop-off area.
The Reconstruction Awards judges praised the Building Team for saving an architectural masterpiece while also benefiting the community with a world-class children's museum.
“Philadelphia really needed this museum because there's really not a lot for the kids in that area to do,” said judge David P. Callan, PE, LEED AP, SVP with Environmental Systems Design, Chicago. — Dave Barista, Managing Editor