Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
A triumphant S.K. Stevens in front of the new museum and archives complex a few months before its formal dedication in October 1965.

A triumphant S.K. Stevens in front of the new museum and archives complex a few months before its formal dedication in October 1965.  Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry

by Curtis Miner

On December 23, 1959, Dr. S.K. Stevens (1904-74) sent out a final, end-of-the-year message to members of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). It came in the form of a brief, typewritten memo, informing them that Governor David L. Lawrence (1889-1966) had that morning signed a spending bill for the construction of a museum and archives building. “I think this is just about the nicest Christmas present any of us could expect.”

The memo’s brevity belied the Herculean effort that had been expended on the project’s behalf. Though it would take another four and a half years of intensive planning and politicking, Lawrence’s signature represented the legislative climax to what was then a 15-year campaign to establish a modern museum and archives complex directly across from the State Capitol in downtown Harrisburg, Dauphin County. As reported by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gilbert Love, “Pennsylvania finally has done something concrete about giving its history a home.”

No one knew that better than Stevens, the state history agency’s visionary director who had done most of the pushing, both in front of and behind the scenes. First as state historian and then, after 1956, as executive director, Stevens worked tirelessly to move the project from a vaguely defined memorial to a broadly supported, state-of-the-art modern museum and archives facility that would set a new national standard in the administration and presentation of state history. To PHMC’s constituents and the general public, Stevens promoted the project as a long overdue homage to William Penn, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, and a fitting showcase for the state’s natural and human history. Privately, though, Stevens conceded that projects rarely got done in Harrisburg based on merit alone and that funding for design and construction would require a good dose of the founder’s own instinct for high ideals mixed with resourcefulness, will power, and pragmatic politics.

Born and raised in Potter County, Sylvester Kirby Stevens, better known as “S.K.,” credited a teacher at Harrison Valley High School with first stirring his interest in history. But it was Stevens’ experience at Penn State, both as a student and professor, that nurtured and directed it toward the relatively untapped field of Pennsylvania history. After graduating with a B.A. in 1926, Stevens stayed on for his masters, completing his thesis under the direction of Dr. Asa Martin. In 1927 Stevens joined the faculty, teaching there until 1937.

Penn State was also where Stevens first began networking on behalf of state history. In 1933 he joined the Pennsylvania Historical Association (PHA), a group of mainly academic historians, formed the previous year in State College for the express purpose of promoting the field of Pennsylvania history. A few years later he became assistant editor of Pennsylvania History, the organization’s new quarterly journal.

Stevens’ work on behalf of the PHA likely lured him from State College to Harrisburg, where in 1937 he went to work as a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), PHMC’s predecessor agency, founded in 1913. By Stevens’ own admission, PHC was a small, underfunded and bureaucratically marginal organization whose activities were largely confined to public commemorations, sporadic archaeological excavations, and the maintenance of a patchwork of historical “shrines.” But by the late 1930s, thanks in large part to a massive infusion of federal spending through such New Deal agencies as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), PHC’s program was expanding. Under the direction of Frank Melvin (1884-1961), a “history minded” attorney from Philadelphia appointed PHC chair in 1935, WPA resources helped to staff and fund a broad range of programs, from site restorations and archaeological investigations to educational outreach. In his capacity as state historian, Stevens guided a number of these projects, including the Historical Records Survey, a comprehensive, statewide program intended to identify and organize valuable but poorly managed local resources.

Despite its heavy emphasis on research and publication, Stevens’ position brought him into close contact with local and state history as it was being practiced across Pennsylvania, whether through research in colleges and universities or through the activities of local and county historical societies, represented by the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies (PFHS). Though he found much of their work to be frustratingly narrow and insular, Stevens enthusiastically engaged with PFHS affiliates; he saw it as an opportunity to direct them beyond the purely antiquarian and filiopietistic to broader themes in state history and build much needed political support in the state’s hinterlands. Over time, the institutional ties that Stevens helped foster among the PHA, PFHS, PHC and other statewide heritage organizations proved mutually beneficial. Institutional coordination and cooperation were imperative for maximizing the use and promotion of Pennsylvania’s historical resources.

Stevens’ position also placed him on the ground floor of a burgeoning national movement to modernize and professionalize the form and content of state and local history. In 1940 he joined with other state history administrators to form the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH). Over the next 35 years Stevens served AASLH in various leadership capacities, including as president and treasurer, and sat on the editorial board of American Heritage, the popularly formatted history magazine he helped launch in 1949. Ideas exchanged at annual meetings and with professional peers also informed Stevens’ understanding of best practices as carried out in states with ambitious history programs. The common goal was to build financial and political support for state history in legislatures across the country as a way of advancing the field.

Natural history exhibits crowded into a room on the second floor of the old State Museum in the 1940s.

Natural history exhibits crowded into a room on the second floor of the old State Museum in the 1940s. PHMC

Though temporarily buoyed by federal spending, Pennsylvania’s own state history program left much to be desired during the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to being perennially underfunded and understaffed, the state’s history functions were inefficiently scattered across several governmental departments and units. A “state museum,” formed in 1905, operated within the State Library, as did the Division of Public Records (1903). Though the work of both of these groups naturally overlapped with PHC, the latter had no control of their staffs or budgets.

The physical circumstances under which PHC and its allied units labored were also a cause for concern. At various times, all three groups were crowded into the same cramped space inside the Executive Building (now the Matthew J. Ryan Building), leaving little room for growth of either staff or collections. Storage was completely inadequate, and both intellectual and physical control suffered as a result. During this period, documents and artifacts were housed piecemeal in attics, basements and other nooks and crannies in various state-owned buildings across the Capitol and around Harrisburg. Despite its “imposing façade,” the Executive Building was in fact a mere “wooden shell” and, owing to antiquated electrical and mechanical systems, a potential fire hazard. A self-study from the late 1940s described randomly organized display cases, many without labels, haphazardly crammed into poorly lit corners. The cumulative effect discouraged visitation.

The catalyst for change came, as it often does, through an anniversary. William Penn’s 300th birthday fell in 1944, and many prominent and influential Pennsylvanians, eager to show their state pride, joined the festivities to honor and commemorate the founder. Among them was Edward Martin (1879-1967), Pennsylvania’s widely respected wartime governor. Though a decorated veteran and staunch Republican, Martin admired the principled pacifist and Quaker. Supporters used the occasion to lobby Martin for a permanent memorial to Penn somewhere in Capitol Park, hastening to add that the likes of political boss Boise Penrose had “rated” a statue, but Penn had not. Stevens and PHC seconded the motion and raised it: Rather than a static monument along the lines of the Lincoln Memorial, they argued instead for a living memorial with an archives and perhaps a museum. “It’s likely Penn would have preferred a useful rather than purely ornamental building, if he had any choice in the matter.”

The revised proposal, put forth the following year and approved by the General Assembly, allocated $6.5 million for the creation of a “William Penn Memorial and Archives Building” as part of the final phase of the Capitol Park Extension plan originally designed by Edward Brunner. The subsequent drawings submitted in 1950 by William Gehron, the architect who inherited the Brunner plan, called for two buildings located directly across from the Capitol at the northwestern terminus of Capitol Park: a rectangular building for a museum and a taller building for an archive.

In what would prove another serendipitous turn of events, the legislature that same year approved a measure to combine the state’s history functions into a single, independent agency to be known as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Though still headquartered inside the old Executive Building, the reorganization brought both the State Archives and the State Museum under the administrative purview of the now 9-person commission. Stevens and his colleagues saw it as a giant bureaucratic step forward for state history, because it assured both a level of administrative control and fiscal independence critical for advancing a statewide program in history.


Architect William Gehron’s original submission for the proposed Penn memorial called for two separate buildings, one for the museum and one for the archives. Although Modern in its use of the International Style, the design’s traditional massing followed the architectural conventions of the Capitol Complex.

Architect William Gehron’s original submission for the proposed Penn memorial called for two separate buildings, one for the museum and one for the archives. Although Modern in its use of the International Style, the design’s traditional massing followed the architectural conventions of the Capitol Complex. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Unfortunately, the momentum of 1945 slowly ground to a halt during the subsequent decade. The original allocation was quickly slashed to $2 million and continued to dwindle between 1947 and 1955 as funding was diverted to prisons, hospitals, schools and other public building priorities. Though work on the design continued, the project by 1952 had largely stalled out.

The project received a new lease on life in 1955 with the election of George M. Leader (1918-2013), the first Democrat to occupy the governor’s office since George Earle some 20 years earlier. Fittingly, when it came time to appoint PHMC’s chairman, Leader turned to the same man who had directed it during its halcyon days of the late New Deal, Frank Melvin. Though now in his 70s, the retired attorney showed no loss of vitality or energy. Within weeks of being seated, he dismissed the current executive director and promoted Stevens to the post.

The pairing of Melvin and Stevens was fortuitous and almost immediately productive. With Melvin’s encouragement, Stevens dusted off the old building plans and began outlining a political strategy to maneuver the project back into view of the General Assembly, PHMC’s partner organizations and the general public. (Although previously approved, the plan would need legislative reauthorization.) “On the development of support for the projected Penn Memorial, we will need to leave no stone unturned. The Quakers ought to be back of this pawing up the ground and demanding action. Most of them are Republicans and that is in our favor.” Stevens also urged Melvin to call on other politically connected individuals and groups to “come up to Harrisburg and raise a little hell in our behalf.”

Stevens’ candor pointed up an important political reality in postwar Pennsylvania: Although Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other urban areas could be counted on to support Democratic initiatives, Republicans remained in firm control of the state legislature, especially the rural-dominated Pennsylvania Senate. Stevens genuinely believed the cause of state history to be bipartisan, but he was also realistic. The plan would require the commonwealth to open its purse strings, likely for more than the original $6.5 million appropriation, and the state GOP was not in a giving mood. For some, opposition to state government spending was ideological. More often, though, it was just politics: “There is an element of extreme small boy pettiness about the project – hard to believe of adults, but true,” one commissioner reported at the start of the effort. “‘Why should we push this museum building through,’ say certain legislators, ‘only to find George Leader’s name on the cornerstone. In two years he will be out of there and we will erect the museum as a Republican accomplishment.’” Stevens, writing to Melvin, urged caution: “We should not plunge into any extensive legislative program which will . . . make us look too much like reformers.”

Despite the delicate political situation, Stevens and Melvin decided to move forward. “Unless we start now, this project will drag on indefinitely.” PHMC also believed it was imperative that the Leader administration act immediately to buy up the properties on the projected site for the new museum at the corner of Third and Forester Streets. The earlier proposal had foundered in part because the land was not available. In the meantime, Stevens and his staff prepared a series of talking points “relative to the purposes and needs to be stressed in our supporting” the building. It echoed previous bon mots to Penn, but more emphatically pointed out the disconnect between Pennsylvania’s first-class history and its third-class accommodations. With characteristic bluntness, Melvin pressed this and other points in a memo to Genevieve Blatt (1913-96), the Secretary of Internal Affairs and a strategic link to the Leader administration: “Previous administrations have failed in equipping and displaying our treasures of history. Our Governor promises to back a strong historic program and I ask that you be one to uphold his arms in every way you can. . . . This is the most historic state in the Union – the Heartland of the nation. GSA funds for jails, schools and nuthouses are fine. I am all for them. But spending GSA money on fine historical restorations will better promote Pennsylvania’s prestige throughout the world.”

The bill reviving the project was introduced in April 1957 and timed to coincide with another Penn anniversary – the 275th anniversary of Penn’s landing in Philadelphia. There it predictably languished in committee for several months but surprisingly attracted no outright opposition. Indeed, as the General Assembly learned of its details, support for the bill spread, though not necessarily for the reasons PHMC might have hoped: “The legislature sees it as a chance to move the Governor’s office out of the capital,” a legislative source wrote “and to move in the legislative reference bureau and other ‘arms’ of the legislature.” In short, the new museum was desirable for the valuable space it would free up. On September 19, 1957, the GSA allocated $350,000 for the design of the new William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives.

The 1957 appropriation relaunched a process that would dramatically modify the existing plans and introduce a signature Modernistic design that would become as well known as the contents of the building itself. In return for the support of M. Harvey Taylor (1876-1982) in the Senate, Lawrie & Green, a Harrisburg architectural firm with close ties to the powerful Dauphin County power broker, were assigned the project. Gehron was politely but unequivocally dismissed. Melvin shrugged it off as the cost of doing business in Harrisburg: “Lawrie [& Green] are very much a Harv Taylor outfit . . . This looks like a deal with Harv Taylor on one end and the Philadelphia boys on the other end.”


After construction got underway in early 1962, it took just over two years to complete the $9.2 million complex.

After construction got underway in early 1962, it took just over two years to complete the $9.2 million complex.
Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Getting design underway was only half the battle. Stevens and PHMC were already too familiar with the perils of partially funded projects, especially those coming at the tail end of an administration. They were already saddled with one set of unbuilt plans and were not eager to inherit another. So with design moving ahead and Leader’s term winding to a close, Stevens and his allies redoubled their efforts to insert project construction in the next GSA spending bill, which would likely have to wait for the next legislative session and the next governor. That Leader’s successor, former Pittsburgh mayor David Lawrence, shared the same party affiliation made little difference. “The cold fact is that museums have very few political friends, and some enemies who would like to spend the money they used in other places,” one observer noted wearily.

Fortunately, thanks to Stevens’ efforts, PHMC was fast gaining both friends and exposure. In early 1959, for instance, the commission launched a statewide lobbying campaign on behalf of both the William Penn Memorial buildings and other state-owned sites around the commonwealth, largely in an effort to keep its ambitious program in front of the incoming governor and legislators. Dubbed “Operation Heritage,” the campaign called attention to the perennial list of problems that hampered PHMC’s effort to do its state-mandated work: inadequate storage for both records and objects, poorly maintained sites and properties, and inadequate staffing. The commission did not lack vision, as the lavishly illustrated 20-page booklet distributed as part of the campaign demonstrated. Operation Heritage promised to transform static shrines into centers for “living” history and replace the worn state headquarters with a “modern” home to be known as the William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building. All it needed was money.

PHMC’s friends, among them PHA, took the message directly to the new governor. “As you undoubtedly are aware, the commonwealth lags far behind most other states in the development and utilization of its heritage,” wrote one supporter. “[W]hen viewed in light of Pennsylvania’s rich past, [this situation] constitutes an almost criminal negligence in the present and will have a most unpleasant affect [sic] upon the corporate future of this state.” The same writer went on to underscore “the very real and immediate threat” constituted by the “present antiquated State Museum Building.” Conditions there posed a danger not only to the “irreplaceable documents and artifacts kept there” but to “the thousands of Pennsylvania residents and tourists who visit the museum each year.”

After construction got underway in early 1962, it took just over two years to complete the $9.2 million complex. Stevens helped lay the cornerstone in May 1964.

Stevens helped lay the cornerstone in May 1964. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

In spring 1959 Stevens happily reported that the full-court press was working: “The booklet is going across very well everywhere. The Clerk of the House called up and wanted copies sent to the legislators.” The campaign’s momentum was sufficient to override opposition from Chief of Staff Walter Geisey, the “weak link” in the Lawrence administration. “[Geisey] did make one most significant statement,” Stevens reported back to Melvin after an early conversation with the new administration. “[A]nd that was that we had very powerful allies in the Legislature and we probably would get [the funding] anyway even if he turned us down.” Geisey was right: Despite the project being omitted from the GSA spending bill put forward by the governor’s staff, Stevens speculated that funding would be slipped back in by October by none other than M. Harvey Taylor. The aging but still powerful senator had been persuaded based on “outside evidence that this is something people want other than just in Harrisburg.” Two months later, the spending bill passed. An overjoyed Stevens promptly had a copy of the bill framed and hung in his office.

With construction finally in the pipeline, Stevens and his professional staff were at last able to turn more attention on the program. “Winning the battle for the building . . . may be compared to winning a war and the losing a peace.” Stevens wrote in his December 1959 commission report. “We are now faced with the task of winning the peace. The future can be assured only through constructive planning and building toward larger objectives than we have ever had in the past.” He urged staff to abandon the “puny efforts” that had been previously applied to the State Museum and its program and embrace the opportunities presented by “a NEW State Museum with its tremendous scope for new and entirely enlarged concepts in terms of exhibits which tell the Pennsylvania story. . . . No small thinking or leadership can meet this challenge.” Among those brought in to offer guidance was Frank A. Taylor, director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology, forerunner to the National Museum of American History.

Stevens, center, inspects a recently finished gallery space along with muralist Vincent Margliotti, left, and PHMC staffer Bill Richards, right.

Stevens, center, inspects a recently finished gallery space along with muralist Vincent Margliotti, left, and PHMC staffer Bill Richards, right. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Long an advocate of a more popular and comprehensive state history, Stevens saw the open galleries on the first three and half floors of the new museum building as an opportunity to present not only political and military history but also “the story of our industries, our agriculture, of labor and the farmer, the schools, and the churches.” Later he said, “We are now in the position to push new and expansive programs. . . . We cannot plead lack of space.” To that end, Stevens enlisted the support of Governor William Scranton (1917-2013), who took office in 1961 and called upon “historic industries” to donate artifacts to help tell the story of the commonwealth’s economic progress. The effort yielded at least one signature artifact that remains on display to this day: a Piper Cub airplane, donated by the Lock Haven-based company’s founder, William Piper.

The acquisition and display of “modern items of historical significance” like the Piper Cub was consistent with Stevens’ desire to present Pennsylvania’s heritage as “a living thing that should be shown vividly.” He also wanted to expand the idea of the museum as not just a “receptacle of artifacts” but a multidisciplinary center for the study and appreciation of Pennsylvania’s past, present and future. To that end, the museum included a planetarium (“where space-age study may center”) alongside more traditional museum offerings in mineralogy and natural history. Stevens also advocated for a more active program in the arts, which he believed would help foster the notion that “the culture of Pennsylvania today and that of yesterday is closely interwoven.” It was entirely fitting that the new museum’s inaugural exhibit, mounted to coincide with its official dedication in October 1965, was the first one ever devoted to the works of Pennsylvania artist N.C. Wyeth.

Visitors approach the newly opened William Penn Memorial Museum from North Street, circa 1965. During its first few years of operation, the museum averaged 300,000 patrons annually.

Visitors approach the newly opened William Penn Memorial Museum from North Street, circa 1965. During its first few years of operation, the museum averaged 300,000 patrons annually.
Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Standing in the center of it all, in Memorial Hall, was an 18-foot bronze statue of the museum’s namesake by Pennsylvania artist Janet de Coux (1904–99). In many ways, her piece set the tone for the kind of museum that Stevens believed Pennsylvania needed and the kind of memorial that William Penn himself would have endorsed. In much the same way that the new museum rejected the concept of a “musty, cobwebbed building,” de Coux’s sculpture jettisoned more familiar depictions of Penn as a dowdy, middle-aged, vaguely disapproving proprietor in favor of a more abstract, contemplative, almost spiritual monument to Quaker ideals of tolerance and peace. Although de Coux’s Penn dominates the space, he is neither alone – surrounded as he is by three floors of gallery space filled with exhibits showcasing the natural and human history that emerged from his “nation-seed” – nor aloof. In de Coux’s depiction, Penn is larger than life, but his bronzed feet are firmly on the marbled ground, where over the past 50 years, hundreds of thousands of school children have encountered him, making him neither ancient nor distant nor irrelevant.

S.K. Stevens retired in January 1972 after nearly 35 years of service to PHMC, the last seven spent in the modern complex he had willed to completion. “With the exception of card carrying politicians,” Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist and friend Paul Beers wrote on the occasion, “Dr. Stevens has witnessed the ways and byways of Pennsylvania politics as no other person has.” And while noting his prodigious scholarly output – some 10 books and countless articles and speeches on topics in Pennsylvania history – Beers correctly noted that Stevens’ greatest achievement was “not any one book, as well done as each is, but the State Museum and Archives. He fought so long and so hard for what is now an accepted landmark in Harrisburg that the joke was architects Lawrie and Green designed it round so S.K. could go on running in circles.” In the end, Stevens, and the cause of Pennsylvania history, persevered.

Curtis Miner, Ph.D., joined the staff of The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 1994 and is now senior history curator. He writes widely on Pennsylvania social and cultural history. His article on Pennsylvania’s New Deal-era museum program, “Art with a Purpose,” appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.



Thoroughly Modern Museum

by Andrea W. Lowery

“We’re extremely anxious to have a thoroughly modern museum,” declared PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens of the William Penn Memorial Museum. “This won’t be old-fashioned. A good, modern museum needn’t be stuffy.” Lawrie & Green, hired to design the new museum and adjacent archives building in December 1957, could not have agreed more.

The first architect engaged to study the new buildings was Williamsport-based William Gehron (1887-1958), who had designed a number of other buildings within Capitol Park. In his 1950 design for the new complex, Gehron located the buildings to the north of the Capitol in a two-block area known as the Capitol Park Extension. In his scheme, a broad rectangular building was dedicated to the museum and a somewhat taller block was devoted to the archives. In September 1957, however, when the project began to move toward construction, Gehron was summarily dismissed from the project.


Lawrie & Green’s design featured a drum-shaped museum building and a tall, sleek archives tower united by a landscaped plaza.

Lawrie & Green’s design featured a drum-shaped museum building and a tall, sleek archives tower united by a landscaped plaza. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Stevens had been amenable to working with Gehron, but when Gehron’s continuing involvement in the project was in question, Stevens began lobbying A.J. Caruso, Executive Director of the General State Authority (GSA), for the selection of “a competent engineering and architectural firm” rather than a high-profile designer. He expressed his concerns to Caruso: “The ‘name’ architect wants a building . . . which will find its way into the architectural histories. . . . but [that approach] does not make that person amenable to advice and direction from the museum or archives director who wants a building which will serve the functional needs of his field of work.”

Fortunately for Stevens, politics and his desire for an ego-free, capable firm intersected in the selection of Harrisburg’s Lawrie & Green. In a letter to the firm at the start of the project, Caruso outlined the tasks expected of them: to design the new museum and archives on the site designated by Gehron, to accommodate a future adjacent office building, and to harmonize with the other buildings in Capitol Park. Addressing Stevens’ concerns about the buildings’ appearance and the state’s concerns about the project costs, Caruso directed, “Ornamentation shall be kept to a minimum.”

By the time of the project, Lawrie & Green were well-established in Harrisburg with a number of traditional-style buildings and a few modern ones (Dauphin County Courthouse, 1942) to their name. Ritchie Lawrie Jr. (1890-1962), an engineer from Pittsburgh, and M. Edwin Green (1896-1985), an architect from Harrisburg, had joined forces in 1922 to open their own firm. Initially the firm’s work was largely residential, but by the 1930s they were designing large commercial projects like the Harrisburger Hotel (now Fulton Bank) and the Central YMCA. Throughout the Depression, the firm was resilient.

“Smooth and personable,” Lawrie was well-connected in Harrisburg. Green was a talented architect, albeit a traditionalist. They augmented their office with roving independent draftsmen. Among them was George Nicholas Pauly (1895-1978), who knew Green from Carnegie Tech. Pauly, who had first worked in New York on such projects as Rockefeller Center and the Beekman Hotel, would come to be the leading Modernist in the office and instrumental in the design of the complex.

Lawrie & Green agreed with Gehron’s assessment that the complex was best served by two separate buildings. This division was supported by S.K. Stevens, who felt that “the functions of the archives section were entirely separate from those of the museum, and they should have their own identity.” By July 1958 Pauly and Green had developed the general massing of the complex. Their design was similar to Gehron’s in elevation, but the new design team moved in a decidedly more modern direction, adopting a drum-shaped museum and a dramatically taller and narrower archives tower.

The new design reflected Modernism, which favored pure unornamented geometric forms. With its circular plan, the museum was clearly in the nontraditional camp. Dr. Alfred Sumberg, Vice President for the Federation of Historical Societies, supported the design but acknowledged that the “museum portion resembles closely the new Guggenheim museum in New York City . . . which has been the center of much controversy.” Although Pauly and Green were dedicated to the modern stylistic approach, they invoked another tenet of Modernism, “form follows function,” to justify the building’s form. A state press release of November 13, 1961, reported, “The circular shape of the Museum Building lends itself to the rotary movement of visitors viewing the exhibits and eliminates dead ends and corner pockets.”

Aluminum entry gates in an abstract-geometric design punctuate the smooth limestone walls of the archives building.

Aluminum entry gates in an abstract-geometric design punctuate the smooth limestone walls of the archives building.  Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Throughout the design process, the archives tower remained rectangular in form, but its footprint, height and placement were the subject of much debate. Green argued for a taller tower, saying that he “felt the inclusion of the tower lent some excitement and gaiety to the atmosphere.” As with the museum, functional arguments were made for the form of the building, with localization of fire, water and other damage cited as reasons for a taller tower with a smaller footprint.

The main visitor entrance to the museum was located on the public plaza. According to the design team and the State Art Commission, “the public use of museums depended on an interesting approach to attract the public.” The landscaped plaza and the show windows on Third Street were key elements in that effort. A design feature associated with Modernism, the plaza was also functional, as it concealed offices, mechanical areas, loading docks and a connection between the two buildings below grade.

The buildings were modern not only in form but also in expression. Natural materials, including limestone, granite, travertine and walnut, brought richness to the public areas. Interior and exterior spaces flowed together, and the roof of the museum evoked the spirit of the Space Age. As mandated by the state and in keeping with Modernism, the complex featured limited ornamentation; instead it relied on juxtapositions between materials, graphic patterns, sculptural forms and varying layers of transparency to enliven the buildings.

The project was publicly advertised for construction in fall 1961. The low bidder awarded the project was John McShain, a large general contractor from Philadelphia. Ground was broken on January 23, 1962, and in December 1964 the press and public were invited to view the completed buildings. Although the complex officially opened in April 1965, the dedication was delayed until October 13 to coincide with Penn’s birthday. Hailed as “undoubtedly one of the best $9.2 million investments that Pennsylvania has ever made,” the modern complex created a forward-looking face of history within the context of tradition, producing as pronounced by Governor William Scranton, “a treasure of learning for citizens and scholars for generations to come.”

The complex was recognized for its architectural merit and listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 1, 2014.

Andrea W. Lowery, R.A., is an architect and architectural historian who works in PHMC’s Division of Architecture and Preservation.