Changing Skyline: Bank Has Perfect Bones for Science Museum in The Philadelphia Inquirer

First National Bank, Philadelphia (1910)

October 10, 2008 - Philadelphia, PA

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Inga Saffron

Banks will fail, as we’ve been reminded a little too often lately. But their buildings can still go on to lead long and productive lives, especially when they’re constructed to weather more than a passing financial storm.

Such is the case with the former First National Bank at Third and Chestnut Streets, a grand old neoclassical survivor that today begins a new life as a museum devoted to the history of chemistry, run by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The renovation, led by Peter Saylor of SaylorGregg Architects, is not only meant to restore grandeur to the historic Chestnut Street bank, but to the chemistry profession itself.

The strands of history, science and commerce come together in Philadephia as they do in no other American city. This is where Robert McNeil salved our pain by inventing Tylenol, and where the geeks from the University of Pennsylvania set the stage for the Internet with the giant brain they called Eniac. With the opening of the $20 million Chemical Heritage museum, Philadelphia can now boast five science museums, including the Franklin Institute, the Wagner Free Institute, the Mutter Museum, and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Philadelphia’s chemistry connection isn’t new. It began with Benjamin Rush, the colonial-era polymath who was America’s first chemistry professor. The city never stopped being an important research center. Yet at some point, chemists began to feel their field was losing the public’s respect—no doubt as a result of the toxic effects of some of their creations.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation openly admits that the new museum is an attempt to remind people of chemistry’s contributions to mankind. This public-relations subtext may explain why the exhibits, designed by the now-ubiquitous Ralph Appelbaum Associates, sometimes feel a bit disconnected from reality.

Still, it’s fitting that the science museum should occupy the carapace of a departed financial institution, located in the city’s historic heart, around the corner from where Ben Franklin lived and conducted many of his scientific experiments. . . .

Link to PI

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