Lenfest Hall, the spacious new vestibule welcoming visitors through the west entrance

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It’s not often a renovation is hailed as a game-changer and a respectful evolution at the same time. That’s been the near-universal response to Frank Gehry’s recent revamp of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Inquirer lauded its “serious beauty,” the Wall Street Journal called it “impressive,” and with its usual derogatory touch, the New York Times deemed the result “very substantial.”

All the critics note Gehry didn’t add any of his signature pizzazz. The architect best known for the reflective swoops of Bilbao made a point of saying he wanted to honor the intent of the museum’s original designers, Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele.

“It’s a reconstruction that adheres to the values of the original architect,” Gehry said in a video statement released alongside the opening. “I tried to respect what they would have done if they were alive.”

Officially referred to by the museum as the “Core Project,” the renovations came at a cost of more than $230 million and opened 90,000 square feet of new public space.

Some of that space is new galleries, which curators filled with two locally-focused exhibits. One showcases art already in the collection, and the other incorporates vibrant multimedia works and other new commissions.

A lot of the new square footage is walkways, corridors, entranceways, and flex space. Gehry ripped out the central auditorium, which was installed mid-century, turning it into a multi-level forum that connects the newly expanded west entrance and the building’s two signature wings.

The end result is that visitors will have a much easier time navigating the world-class collection — it’s all ADA-accessible — and will better appreciate the institution’s place within its home.

Read on for some interesting details you might not already know about the art museum’s new look.

‘Walls of Change’ by Odili Donald Odita, in ‘New Grit’ Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Gehry has been thinking about this project for more than 20 years

Shortly after the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997, Gehry was at an event when he ran into Anne d’Harnoncourt, who served as museum director and CEO from 1982 until she died in 2008.

It was then and there that d’Harnoncourt raised the idea of Gehry taking on Philly’s museum. “She congratulated me and said [Bilbao] achieved excitement,” he recalled in the video released this May. Then she posed her challenge.

“Could you imagine doing something completely underground in an existing building?” d’Harnoncourt asked the famed architect. Saying he was “tired of all the Bilbao stuff already,” Gehry replied that it was a “wonderful idea” and that he’d relish the opportunity to “hide under the covers, kind of.”

Gehry didn’t think d’Harnoncourt was serious, he recalled, but indeed she was. “Within a couple weeks she was calling me about this.” He was officially selected for the project in 2006.

The Williams Forum replaces a former enclosed auditorium Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The vaulted walkway was built as a subway station

One of the most notable new additions is what’s called the vaulted walkway.

After decades closed off and used for storage, part of it became accessible to the public in 2019, when the museum reopened its Gehry-refined north entrance, next to the start of Kelly Drive. Now that the other half has been added, the corridor stretches 640 feet across the ground floor, spanning the entire breadth of the building.

It’s a visually stunning space, with 24-foot arched ceilings covered in luminous Guastavino tiles — and it was originally created to impress museum visitors arriving via subway.

Art Museum Station was built as a stop on a never-completed line, according to Hidden City Philadelphia. Known alternately as the Parkway-Roxborough or Northwestern route, the subway would have run below ground from City Hall to the museum, then continued on elevated tracks out past Henry Avenue, over the Wissahickon Creek.

The line didn’t happen, obviously. In 1916, City Transit Commissioner A. Merritt Taylor, who came up with the idea, was replaced by a planner who was more conservative and also had to contend with the scarcity caused by World War I.

But planning for the art museum was already well underway, and the transit entranceway was already included in the plans.

You can see proof of its history when you visit: etched into one of the limestone walls is a wayfinding sign indicating that if you go north, you’ll be able to transfer to the Route “A” bus.

A ‘ghost’ wayfinding sign in the north part of the vaulted walkway Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Even the closet doors are made from quarried limestone

The walls of the vaulted walkways were built out of the same material that gives the museum its distinctive sand-toned exterior: Kasota limestone, named for the Minnesota region where it’s quarried.

If you spot the silvery filaments that thread through some of the blocks, those are made of a mineral composite called dolomite — the material is sometimes also called “dolostone.”

With a high magnesium content, the stone is considered highly weather resistant, but that doesn’t mean it stays clean. For the renovation, the museum removed decades of dirt that had accumulated on the interiors, and then Gehry matched them, using stones from the same quarries for all of the new spaces.

The matching goes so far that slices of Kasota stone are also used to cover things like closet doors and the movable partitions that can seal off event spaces.

A closet is tucked beneath the Gehry stairs in the Williams Forum Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

‘New Grit’ brought curators together for the first time ever

Of the new galleries created by the renovation so far, the one that concentrates on contemporary art is the most exciting. “New Grit: Art & Philly Now” offers a platform for artists not usually featured on such a vaunted stage.

Filled with pieces by 25 people who either hail from or work in Philadelphia, it’s an amalgam of many different mediums. The themed rooms feature paintings next to videos, textiles next to sketches, photography lined up across from sculpture. There’s a whole section that glows neon, and a multimedia installation centered around a transistor radio.

The layout provided a first-time opportunity for many of the museum’s curators, who are usually cordoned off into their own disciplines, to really collaborate.

“We were learning how to work together in the process of making this exhibition,” photography curator Peter Barberie told The Inquirer.

‘Night Window (for Tamayo’ by Alex Da Corte, in ‘New Grit’ Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Renovations cut usage 23% at the biggest city-owned energy user

Measured together with the nearby Perelman Building, which it took over in 2007, the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses more energy than any other structure owned by the city.

At last count, it sucked up more than 125k MMBtu, versus less than 100k for the second-place Curran Fromhold prison, per a city dashboard.

Usage is down significantly, however, thanks to a parallel project that was able to happen because of disruptions necessitated and space cleared up by the Gehry renovations.

Behind the scenes over the past five years, a revamp was going on to make the building more sustainable and energy efficient. In addition to LED lighting throughout the buildings, workers installed a new chilled-water HVAC system and upgraded insulation on heating pipes

Altogether, the $11 million project is thought to have reduced energy usage around 23% — paying for itself via associated cost savings.

LED lighting and wiring along the vaulted walkway is suspended in a slim carrier so it doesn’t interfere with the architecture Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Gardens will soon fill the west terrace

Although the entrance on the west side of the building is newly revamped, with an elegant vestibule welcoming people and no more dark revolving door, the exterior surrounding it is still pretty bare.

Not for long. Officially called the Robbi and Bruce Toll Terrace, the area that faces Boathouse Row and the Schuylkill River will soon be landscaped, potentially even outfitted with raised gardens, according to a museum spokesperson.

Once it’s greened up a bit, the area could play host to outdoor events, or just become another beloved public space, like its parallel on the museum’s opposite side.

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

A skylight will replace the fountain atop the ‘Rocky steps’

The next phase of Gehry’s reimagining is the one that caused the most debate, which erupted when he teased a plan to punch a hole through the museum’s famous “Rocky steps.”

It’s still undecided if that will happen, per a museum spokesperson, who described the hole as “one of a couple of options.” More certain is that the transformation of the space beneath those steps will create an additional 50,000 square feet of galleries with 20-foot ceilings.

Some of those rooms will be bathed in natural light, thanks to a new “oculus” skylight that’s slated to replace the little-used fountain that currently sits in the center of the east terrace.

There’s no timeline or target date for when the next set of renovations will be complete.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
‘Fire (United States of America)’ by Teresita Fernández, in the Williams Forum Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.