4231 Avenue of the Republic, Philadelphia, PA 19131, United States
Memorial Hall, a staple of West Fairmount Park, was built for the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. The building has undergone structural changes over the past 240 years, but remains a piece of Philadelphia history. It now houses the Please Touch Museum .
According to Rebecca Trumbull’s Memorial Hall: A History, “The Centennial Exhibition was to be the seventh of the world’s great fairs and the first of its magnitude to be held in America.” The Congress of the United States created the proposal in an Act of Congress, which they passed on March 3, 1871. Fairmount Park set aside 236 acres to prepare for the exhibition. Workers transformed “a series of fields, lawns, swamps, and ravines… into building sites, gardens, and highly-ornamented grounds” so that the grounds could be fitted for construction.
Herman Joseph Schwarzman designed Memorial Hall and oversaw its construction along with contractor Richard J Dobbes. The state of Pennsylvania designated $1 million, while the city of Philadelphia offered $500,000. The plan for Memorial Hall featured the classic French Beaux-Arts scheme. It was the first of its type to be finished in America. The building was a fireproof structure of large dimensions: 365 feet in length, 210 feet in width. The final addition was a 150 feet dome that one could view from miles away. Memorial Hall housed the art display during the Centennial Exhibition.
After the Centennial, the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art acquired the Hall. It presented a collection of art which would later form the nucleus of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The building’s upkeep, however, proved too expensive. The annual report of the museum in 1919 stated that it was “mainly hampered by the fact that Memorial Hall is entirely unsuitable for the exhibition and storage of objects of art.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its doors for the first time just nine years later. It took with it all of the collections that had been on display at Memorial Hall.
Hard times were only beginning for Memorial Hall. In 1933, the Board of the Museum closed the building indefinitely. The rise of the Great Depression and the creation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art caused a lack of funding. In 1935, the Fairmount Park Commissioners reopened portions of the Hall for a public library and offices. In addition, the Board proposed opening museum exhibits for 10 weekends during the summer.
After a period of stability into the 1950s, the Park Commissioners took over maintenance of the building from the Board of the Museum. The Commissioners hired Hatfield, Martin, and White as architects to renovate and rehabilitate the formerly glorious building for public use . According to the Please Touch Museum, “Memorial Hall remained open for smaller exhibits and was used for collections storage until 1956, when it was converted to a recreation center and headquarters for Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission.” Afterwards, the building received occasional attention. It served as a police station in 1982, while also featuring a few recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 80’s and 90’s. However the building made a brief return to prominence in true Philadelphia fashion. When Phillies Hall of Famer/announcer, Richie “Whitey” Ashburn died in 1997, his family chose to have his viewing at Memorial Hall due to the outpouring of respect and admiration for Richie from the community.
The years of disrepair caught up with the aged building - until the Please Touch Museum called. Formerly located on 21st Street only a few blocks from the Franklin Institute, the Please Touch Museum simply grew too large for that small building. In need of a new home, it found a perfect match in Memorial Hall, which needed more rehabilitation after another period of inactivity. The Museum received an 80-year lease beginning in 2005. Memorial Hall underwent construction starting this same year. Builders completed the work in 2008. The Hall has served in an excellent capacity for the children’s museum since then.
In 2016, Fairmount Park is in the midst of another tremendous change as it creates a 20-year plan that will radically alter the surrounding area by turning the area into a cultural and historical attraction. This work will finish in 2026, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of American Independence. Memorial Hall will again help celebrate American Independence once again, just like for the Centennial Exhibition.