‘Starchitect’ Frank Gehry Behind Art Museum’s Refurbished Walkway

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Frank Gehry and Gail Harrity
Frank Gehry and Gail Harrity, president and chief operating officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art invited guests to enter through its north entrance for the first time in a generation last week.

Completion of the penultimate step in the museum’s “Core Project,” a decades-long series of renovations designed by renowned Jewish-American and Canadian architect Frank Gehry, means that 22,000 square feet of space is being returned to patrons for the first time since 1975.

The star of the show, aside from the 90-year-old Gehry, was the refurbished Vaulted Walkway with 24-foot-high ceilings covered in restored Guastavino tiles (the kind found on the vaulted ceilings of some of New York’s classier subway stations). At more than 600 feet long, the walkway spans the length of the museum and, after a decades-long tenure as tragic collateral damage of the North End’s loading dock, the walkway will once again be a major artery for visitors heading to interior exhibits.

And it’s all thanks to Gehry, the mega-architect best known for designing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The funny thing is, this years-long renovation doesn’t really resemble anything Gehry has ever done.

“It was interesting they’d choose (Gehry) for an historical preservation project,” said architect and curator Judd Swanson, whose firm works closely with the famed Menil Collection in Houston. “That’s not really what he’s known for … since his work typically falls on the sculptural side.”

But Gehry is big name, a “starchitect,” as they say.

“He’s a famous person, so that helps major institutions,” Swanson added.

The restored vaulted walkway
The restored vaulted walkway (Photo by Tim Tiebout)

Gehry’s high profile has certainly drawn attention to the Philadelphia Museum of Art project, as it seems to represent a rare departure for Gehry, whose most famous work is known for bright surfaces and surprising contours.

But as Philadelphia Museum of Art Communications Director Norman Keyes pointed out, there is a precedent for this kind of Gehry project.

“While many people think of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao … as the most representative aspect of Gehry’s approach to museum design, his thoughtful renovation and expansion of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena … most closely parallels the approach he took to this project.”

For Gehry’s part, the reputedly cantankerous old master was all jokes and smiles at his Philadelphia press conference last week, and there seemed to be little that would or could steer him from the positive. And who could blame him? The reviews are in and they seem to be unanimous: The new space is spectacular.

And the affection is mutual: At the press conference, Gehry noted his fondness for the museum’s world-renowned collection, calling it “staggeringly extraordinary,” and recalling how often he used to come and visit, especially when his late friend Anne d’Harnoncourt was the museum’s director and CEO.

The beloved d’Harnoncourt, whose many triumphs included leading the successful campaign to keep Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” in Philadelphia, was the person who made an overture to Gehry about the museum entrance.

Gehry recalled her asking, “Frank, could you imagine doing a building underground and

William Hite and Frank Gehry
From left: School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite and Frank Gehry (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

getting as much public excitement and buy-in as Bilbao?”

Gehry thought he could pull it off.

“I said it would be a great challenge, but I could get with it.” This was before he had “any clue what I’d gotten myself into,” Gehry conceded, to laughs.

Despite Gehry’s high profile, many people don’t know about his Jewish background, which he does not frequently discuss.

The son of Irving Goldberg and Sadie Kaplanski-Caplan, Russian and Polish Jews, respectively, Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg, in 1929, in Toronto. His grandfather was the president of the synagogue the Goldbergs attended, where Gehry was given the Hebrew name Ephraim and, later, became a Bar Mitzvah.

But Gehry soon soured on organized religion — and he can tell you the exact moment.

It was during his Bar Mitzvah reception. He told Jewish Journal earlier this year that he found the guests at his reception “disingenuous” because, after the service, young Frank had wanted some feedback on his Torah portion, but all the guests seemed to be interested in was eating and drinking. Recalled Gehry in that same interview, “They were just there for the schnapps and the food and (they) split.”

At 18, still going by the surname Goldberg, he enrolled at the University of Southern California and joined AEPi, the national Jewish fraternity. Due to the anti-Semitism he experienced there, around that time he jettisoned Goldberg and started going by Gehry.

While Gehry is an avowed atheist, he does treasure a copy of a Talmud he once studied with his grandfather. He’s also been commissioned to design the $300 million World’s Jewish Museum, scheduled to open in Tel Aviv in 2023, in time for the 75th anniversary celebration of Israeli statehood.

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