The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquires a room from Armajiani

While designing the room, Armajani discovered that Louis Kahn had taken art classes at Fleischer as a child in the 1910s. So he turned the room into a tribute to the famous architect, etching one of his drawings in yellow glass on the crossbar of the door.

The window shutters in Louis Kahn’s lecture hall were painted dark blue, with a set of small hinged shutters at the bottom painted bright yellow. (Courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial)

The ceiling cornice is topped with a quote from Kahn: “Schools began with a man under a tree who didn’t know he was a teacher, sharing his realization with a few others who didn’t know they were students.”

The ceiling’s reverence for architecture is reflected in the floor. The wooden floorboards are painted black, inlaid with the outline of a large rectangle. Contains a passage from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of the Rolling Earth”.

When all the materials are prepared and ready, the architects will appear.

I swear to you the architects will definitely show up,

I swear to you, they will understand you and justify you,

The greatest among them will be the one who knows you best,

And embraces all and is faithful to all,

He and the others will not forget you, they will know you

not an iota less than them,

You will be fully glorified in them.

“Creating these rooms was really about the democratic potential of architecture,” Sroka said. “The things that were about to happen and shared were far more important to him than the actual materials of the room itself.”

But when O’Leary arrived at Fleischer a year ago for her first day as interim principal, she saw that the room wasn’t being used the way Armajani had intended. It was packed with boxes; cleaning supplies were arranged on the benches.

“I realized how important this room is and what respect it should command,” she said. “I said, ‘No more deliveries, no more storage in this room. Turns off. I don’t care where it goes, but this room really deserves respect. It’s a very special, unique place.”

The Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia, which occupies a former church, offers classes and programs for children and adults. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The Fleischer Arts Memorial had changed since Armajani had designed the space: its art classes and programs for children and adults had increased, with many more people using the space. What was supposed to be a contemplation room became part corridor to the office and classrooms upstairs and part storage overflow.

By the time O’Leary arrived, negotiations were already underway with both the Art Museum and Armajani’s widow to make the room available to the museum. Before all its elements were removed, the space was meticulously documented centimeter by centimeter. Even small pieces of the walls and ceiling will be cut and removed to archive the color.

Sroka said some objects, such as the pews, could be faithfully reconstructed if necessary, but other elements, such as citation treatments in the floor and ceiling, would be difficult or impossible to replicate exactly.

“It’s a challenge for us as an institution, which is traditionally an object institution, to say that it’s not about the object itself, it’s about being able to preserve the energy of this room,” she said.

The Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia, which occupies a former church, offers classes and programs for children and adults. (Emma Lee/WHY)

This will not be the first premises that the Art Museum acquires. It now has an entire Japanese teahouse permanently housed in its galleries, an Indian temple, stone architectural elements from a Gothic cathedral, and a fireplace and mantle carved by Pennsylvania woodworker Wharton Esherick, among others.

The next stop for the room’s elements will be the Art Museum’s conservation department to make sure they are stable. Sroka said the museum still doesn’t know what will eventually become of Armajani’s lecture hall.

The now-empty space at Fleisher will likely become a kitchen, according to O’Leary. With many immigrant families in the community socializing around their local foods, and an adjacent historic sanctuary that can be rented out as an event space, O’Leary said a full-service kitchen would best serve Fleischer’s mission.

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