Robert A.M. Stern introduces American Revolution Museum design

Architect Robert A.M. Stern Tuesday ran through a brief presentation on his proposed design for the American Revolution Center on a site at Third and Chestnut streets, a site now occupied by a defunct visitors’ center. Joining Stern were Mayor Michael Nutter, Pennsylvania’s First Lady, Susan Corbett, and museum officials. 

The “architectural unveiling,” as it was billed, also served as a formal announcement of a $40 million donation from H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, the museum’s chairman of the board. His contribution operates as a challenge grant toward raising the remaining money to make the museum a reality. 

Thus far, the state has contributed $30 million; all told about $150 million is needed to build and endow the museum.

Museum president and CEO Michael C. Quinn introduced Stern by praising the architect’s sensitivity to context, and indeed Stern began his presentation by showing the different masses, sizes, and periods of the buildings — from the imposing 1933 Custom House to the Greek Revival Second Bank — that surround the site. 

But while he’s often referred to as a post-modernist, Stern is generally known as an unrepentant traditionalist and so, of course, with this building he’s opted for a Colonial-inspired structure complete with red brick, mullioned windows, recessed arches topped by keystones.

There’s even a cupola “echoing but not reproducing the cupola of Independence Hall,” he pointed out.

Sketches of the building’s three-story interior seem remarkably like those of the too-spacious National Constitution Center — no doubt the better to assemble school groups during the day and lavish private parties in the evening — but at least I.M. Pei and Co. were brave enough to place a thoroughly contemporary building at the end of the Mall.

But in pursuing the same low-slung, red brick route as the Independence Visitor Center and the Liberty Bell Center, Stern is offering just one more pale imitation of the great Independence Hall. 

The design may be easy, but its harmless ambition (or is it ambitious harmlessness?) shouldn’t detract from the good news that this project is at last on the move. As evidenced Tuesday and in previous temporary exhibits that have periodically invaded the current space, the collection is artifact-rich and will add much to completing the story that’s told throughout the Mall. 

And it will, in the words of Mayor Nutter, further cement that we live in the “most livable, walkable, and historical city in the United States of America.”

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