The Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building

Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building

Photos: Tom Crane

Excerpts from an essay by Peter M. Saylor, FAIA, of Dagit Saylor Architects, who did the project renovation; the complete essay appears in PAFA’s 200th anniversary publication: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805–2005: Two Hundred Years of Excellence (Philadelphia, 2005).

Roots as an Automobile Showroom

Looking back to the early part of the twentieth century, the area along North Broad Street next to PAFA was home to a remarkable group of automobile manufacturers, including the still extant Packard Building and adjacent Peerless Cadillac Building. It was into this heavy industrial environment that the Gomery-Schwartz Motor Company announced in 1916 its intentions to erect a ten-story building to serve as an automobile showroom and “car storage” facility.

Designed by Charles Oelschlager, the new showroom and storage facility utilized the core understanding of his practice in the use of reinforced concrete, the material that revolutionized industrial construction in the Philadelphia area in the early twentieth century. Externally, the building is a simple rectangular block that covers the entire site. Its Broad Street facade is clad at the base in limestone with three-story pilasters and cornice, with a principal public entrance framed by an ornamented cast iron surround. Above there are seven stories with piers and spandrels of yellow brick supporting a limestone colored cornice. Internally, the original first floor showroom possessed an impressive level of true and faux travertine finishes, including a two story space surrounded by a mezzanine and connected by a double monumental stair. Perhaps more unique, the general interior structure featured a staggered or triangular grid of interior columns, creating undoubtedly a more efficient means of turning vehicles on a wider radius than through a more conventional square bay design. 

An Historic Property

Not long after its occupancy by the Gomery-Schwartz Motor Company, portions of the new building were adapted for office use during World War I, and by the 1920s the building also housed the Hudson Motor Car Company. Further transformation to the building interiors occurred when it was later acquired by the Federal Government. Eventually, as part of the U.S. General Services Administration process for disposal of federal properties, a Cultural Resources Survey was conducted. As a result of the survey, in the late 1990s the building was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Properties. Its importance lies in its representation of the early automotive history of Philadelphia, with largely intact original showroom interiors and pioneering structural loft spaces created by the industrial boom of the early twentieth century. 

PAFA Acquisition

In 2002 the building was formally renamed the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building in memory of one of PAFA’s staunchest supporters, “Sam” Hamilton (1924-1997) who served as a board member almost continuously from 1974 to 1997, with a term as chairman of the board from 1984 to 1986. This commemoration was made possible by the largest private donation in the institution’s history, given by Mr. Hamilton’s widow and joint Academy supporter, Mrs. Dorrance H. Hamilton. Her $5.0 million gift toward the building renovation was the culmination of decades of generous support from the Hamiltons. 

Renovations

Early in the design process it became apparent that the Hamilton Building would not be able to fulfill the first floor need for a temporary exhibition gallery with adequate ceiling height, while maintaining the historically protected showroom interior. Through negotiations with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the demolition of the first floor interior was allowed in exchange for PAFA’s commitment to fully restore the Broad and Cherry Street facades to their original appearances, along with adaptation of the lower showroom window elements. This agreement set the design on a path in which the dignified but somewhat formidable image of the Landmark Building would be contrasted to the Hamilton Building’s very transparent and welcoming “showroom” for art. 

New Galleries

The new special exhibition gallery has been named the Fisher Brooks Gallery in honor of board member Marguerite Lenfest’s mother, Leonie Brooks, and her grandfather, James R. Fisher, who attended PAFA in the late 1880s and participated in several annual exhibitions. The Fisher Brooks Gallery provides an elegance and simplicity that offers optimum flexibility for traveling exhibitions, and given the extraordinary height achieved by the removal of the Gomery-Schwartz mezzanine, it provides an excellent venue for the display of large contemporary paintings. Coupled with the extensive new galleries on the second floor and the unique Sculpture Study Center, the overall gallery additions significantly increase PAFA’s ability to showcase its collection depth.