Philly’s African American Museum moving to the Ben Franklin Parkway

After 50 years at the corner of 7th and Arch streets, the museum will occupy a portion of the long-vacant historic Family Court building next to the Free Library.

The old Family Court Building on Vine Street in Philadelphia.

The old Family Court Building on Vine Street in Philadelphia. (WHYY file)

After nearly 50 years at the same site, the African American Museum in Philadelphia is on the move.

During a news conference on Thursday, officials announced the museum is relocating to the former Family Court Building at 1801 Vine Street, walking distance from Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile” along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The museum has operated out of a space at 7th and Arch streets since opening in 1976.

Speaking in the shadow of the institution’s future home, Mayor Jim Kenney said the move will give the museum the spotlight it deserves.

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“Not that the museum doesn’t do a good job where it’s at. It just belongs up here with all the other iconic institutions in our city,” said Kenney.

The historic Family Court Building, a hulking beaux-arts property from the Great Depression era, takes up nearly 250,000 square feet. The African American Museum is set to occupy nearly 50,000 square feet, tripling the space it has now while putting it on par with similar museums in other big cities, including Chicago.

The new location and the additional space are also expected to grow museum attendance, which now tallies around 80,000 people a year.

“This will be a state-of-the-art blockbuster museum,” said AAMP President Ashley Jordan.

The space has yet to be designed, but is slated to include a theater, cafe, and exhibit space dedicated to telling the stories of notable Black Philadelphians, said Jordan.

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The Free Library of Philadelphia, which sits right next door, will also occupy a section of the property as part of a larger redevelopment project that includes an 88,000-square-foot lot on nearby Wood Street.

The Free Library plans to open a 60,000-square-foot center for children and families, as well as a new auditorium.

“The Free Library is thrilled about the possibilities for an even stronger collaboration between the African American Museum and the library,” said Director Kelly Richards.

Officials expect the entire redevelopment project to take four to five years to complete.

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which is overseeing the process, recently short-listed four development teams to submit proposals for the site, which are expected to be due by the end of the year.

The development teams are:

  • Trammell-Crow/Badger Group/Salamander Hotels
  • Tishman Speyer/Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners
  • National Real Estate Development/Frontier Development with Method/Smith & Roller/BKP Development
  • Lubert-Adler/Mosaic Development

The total cost of the redevelopment has yet to be determined, but will require fundraising from both the city and the winning development team.

The project will also require some ingenuity. The exterior, as well as parts of the interior, are historically protected. That includes 37 murals created to promote the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency launched under former President Franklin Roosevelt to employ millions of Americans during the Great Depression.

Thursday’s news comes nearly a decade after the Family Court Building was closed. It now resides at 1501 Arch St., within eyeshot of City Hall.

Under former Mayor Michael Nutter, the city attempted to redevelop the property at 1801 Vine St., partnering with the Peebles Corporation to bring a luxury hotel to the location.

The project fell apart after Peebles ran into trouble securing historic tax credits necessary to renovate the building. The pandemic, particularly its impact on the hospitality sector, also compromised the viability of the redevelopment plan, according to the city.

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