Garden parity: Revived Rodin landscape again part of museum experience

After a year under wraps, renovations to the front gate and gardens of the Rodin Museum along the Parkway in Philadelphia are complete. Now the small museum is ready for the big changes coming to the Parkway.

Visitors entering the Rodin Museum from the street are greeted by “The Thinker,” a sculpture of a very fleshy man crouched in deep thought. On the other side of a limestone gateway is a formal French garden with symmetrical beds and central fountain.

Dominating the far side of the garden is Rodin’s piece de resistance, “The Gates of Hell.”

Architect Paul Cret and landscape designer Jacques Gréber created the building and the garden specifically for Rodin’s sculptures.

“These formal gardens are an extension of the building,” said Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which operates the Rodin Museum. “From the beginning, the landscaping and this formal garden that serves as an apron entry were an integral part of the experience as a whole.”

In the 92 years since their completion, neither the building nor the gardens have undergone a major overhaul. Plants and trees grew to dominate the sculptures, and the limestone was looking worse for wear.

Outside the garden’s iron fence, the grounds were mostly grass tamped by pedestrians into cow paths.

The landscape architectural firm Olin was hired to restore the gardens. Olin is also landscaper for the Barnes Foundation, now under construction next door. The new Barnes landscaping and the restored Rodin landscaping are meant to complement each other.

“Very different in style,” said Olin partner Susan Weiler. “This follows the intent of a French garden, the Barnes is more linear. But also know that the views from within the building and the uses of the Barnes–we know exactly what gardens they are going to be looking into here. They are very much thought of in concert.”

The landscaping is meant to guide people from the traffic of the Parkway, through the pastoral plane trees, and into the serenity of the interior garden. “It lowers your blood pressure,” said Weiler.

Some plant species that were part of the original 1929 design were returned to the garden, but some were not because they are now considered non-native, invasive plants.

The surrounding grounds have been inlaid with curving, aggregate concrete paths and new lighting. Olin is designing the lion’s share of a $20 million upgrade of landscaping and pedestrian paths from the Free Library to the Art Museum.

Just as the exterior of the Rodin are rejuvenated for the public, the interior is about to close. The museum will shut its doors from Sept. 6 until the spring for renovation. During that time the gardens will remain open to the public during posted museum hours.

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