Investing in Our Past spotlights a historic building that has been repurposed, demonstrating the economic value of preservation and reuse.

To celebrate its thirtieth birthday this year, the Please Touch Museum is giving young Philadelphia residents and visitors a very special gift: the launching of an intensive rehabilitation of Fairmount Park’s opulent Memorial Hall to serve as its new facility.

Built as an architectural showpiece for the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition that celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of American independence, Memorial Hall is an extravagant Beaux Arts-style building that cost 1.5 million dollars to erect, equivalent to more than twenty-five million dollars today (see “1876: Centennial Craze Sweeps into Philadelphia by James McClelland in this issue). It housed the Centennial’s official art gallery and, after the extravaganza closed, it accommodated the museum which ultimately emerged as the world­class Philadelphia Museum of Art. Harris M. Steinberg, AIA, a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania’s architec­ture department and an appointee to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, describes the sprawling structure as “a glorious souvenir of America’s coming­-out party on the international stage.” The Centennial International Exhibition was the first elaborate world’s fair in North America. It’s an exciting prospect to return this magnificent building to its original use as a museum,” says Nancy D. Kolb, president and CEO of the Please Touch Museum. ”We are committed to invest­ing in the history of Philadelphia by restoring this landmark according to stringent historic preservation guidelines. We are dedicated to enriching the city’s culture and enhancing its role as a destination for visitors of all ages, especially our younger audiences. And we are delighted to help educate our children through programs, activities, and exhibits that motivate physical activity, social interaction, cognitive development, and emotional engage­ment.”

Kolb notes Memorial Hall will give the museum 135,000 square feet of space – triple the size of its current facility. The museum will refurbish popular attractions before installing them in Memorial Hall, including the Rocket Express, which ran through the toy department of John Wanamaker’s, a venerable center-city department store, from 1948 to 1986. Several scenes from the Enchanted Colonial Village, a favorite of holiday shoppers at Lits Brothers from 1960 until 1977, when the popular department store closed, will be refurbished and returned to display. A merry-go-round made by the famous Dentzel Carousel Company, of Philadel­phia, and the centerpiece of the city’s Woodside Park, from 1897 to 1955, will be a featured attraction. “In 2001, the Commonwealth, through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission [PHMC],” says Kolb, “designated Fairmount Park a ‘Commonwealth Treasure’ to recognize its historical, architectural, social, and cultural significance, and the Please Touch Museum will help preserve this legacy by saving Memorial Hall.”

The Please Touch Museum’s new facility, slated to open in fall 2007, projects attendance of nearly a half­-million visitors during its first year, which is expected to generate $3.6 million in admissions alone. Founded in 1976 by a group of educators, artists, and parents, the museum-which encourages the older visitor “to allow your child to be your guide” – is nationally recognized for the innovative and unusual experi­ences it offers.

The PHMC provided a Keystone Historic Preservation grant to the Please Touch Museum for cleaning and restoring Memorial Hall’s masonry facade. (The PHMC also funded the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust’s report on interpretation and signage for the Ohio House – built specifically for the Centennial – and an assessment of its unusual stone facade.)

For more information about visiting the museum at its present location, write: Please Touch Museum, 210 North 21st St., Philadelphia, PA 19103; telephone (215) 963-0667; or visit the Please Touch Museum website.


Keystone Historic Preservation grants are available to nonprofit organizations and local governments to preserve or restore historic resources listed in, or eligible for listing, in the National Register of Historic Places. The grants are competitive and require matching funds. Grants are available in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $100,000. Deadline for grant applications is May 1, 2006.