Coming up on its 50th anniversary celebration, Arch Street’s African American Museum – the first museum in the U.S. built and funded by a municipality to exhibit the heritage of African Americans – did the unexpected, yet wildly deserved: it announced its move to Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The redevelopment of the 240,000 square foot historic property, formerly the Family Court Building, and its 88,000 square foot adjacent lot will include a new home for the African American Museum as well as an expansion to the Free Library’s Parkway space.
“This is an important day not only for the City of Philadelphia and the African American Museum, but for African American history in our city. From the successful protests to desegregate Girard College to the first legislative act ever passed by a democracy to outlaw slavery, African Americans have played critically important roles in our City and Commonwealth’s long histories,” City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said in a statement.
The forward movement of the African American Museum—originally known as the African American History Museum—from its current home of 701 Arch Street to 1801 Vine Street was made possible by museum president Dr. Ashley Jordan, who got it done within eight months of taking the job.
“When I got there, my first impression of the (existing) space was that it had a lot of space that was not being utilized,” says Jordan, noting, in particular, its famously long ramp that took away from much needed gallery/exhibition space. “Coming from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center where my former site was 158,000 square feet, I knew that there were challenges related to being able to show the best of what we could exhibit due to existing structural issues.”
Jordan adds that obtaining funding to preserve and interpret African American historical artifacts, as well as curate exhibitions, is very challenging. “Most African American museums are self-starting and self-sustaining, so here in Philadelphia, to have support of the city, to have the level of commitment that the city has – the partnerships we’d like to see continue going forward – is extraordinary.”
Jordan began her conversations about larger housing for the museum with Mayor Jim Kenney, City Council, the Department of Public Property, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and this City’s Planning and Development (P&D) offices as soon as she walked in the door.
“The move had been in the works before I got there, but a part of my vision – and being a student of museums – was to revisit those plans. Councilman Isiah Thomas was integral in getting those conversations started. We wanted to make certain this happened, as there are many major cities – Washington DC, Nashville – doing the same work as us. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t passed over. Our museum must be a destination, and by moving into a grander location, we could ensure that.”
Jordan found the grandeur and square footage she thought necessary for the African American Museum as soon as she stepped into 1801 Vine. “The space spoke to me,” she said of the opportunities to re-imagine the museum. “The framework is gorgeous. Inside those walls – that’s where the real magic is going to happen. The Smithsonian is the crème-de-la-crème, right? To have a building such as the Family Court, an institution that is as showy and present – it’s like, oh yeah, we’re in this now.”
The one-time home to the operations of the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania was designed by local architect John Torrey Windrim and constructed in 1941 with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Family Court Building and The Free Library of Philadelphia (completed in 1927) are twin buildings, modeled after the palaces of La Place de la Concorde in Paris. Presently, four architectural development teams are shortlisted to reimagine the sites: Trammell-Crow/Badger Group/Salamander Hotels, Tishman Speyer/Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, National Real Estate Development/Frontier Development with Method/Smith & Roller/BKP Development, Lubert-Adler/Mosaic Development.
Jordan and other city administrators will soon be looking to see which developers’ visions are in line with the mission of the African American Museum, so to complete the new home’s look and feel by the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding in 2026.
“I’m hoping that, in 2026, you and I will talk about the importance of timing, because when the original African American Museum was built, it was erected during the Bicentennial. There’s something crucial to be said about that time, about how each phase of our museum’s journey and our abilities to connect, contribute and celebrate African American culture have been significant. We want to be even more visible and more connective with more people going forward – a local and international destination at our new location.”