Onsite Review: Philadelphia

Love Park near City Hall in Philly.
Love Park near City Hall in Philly.

You go to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, Federal Hall, the Quaker meeting house, the Constitutional Museum, the Rocky statue, and other monuments to America’s saga. However, you go back to Philadelphia—multiple times—to see its art museums, as I periodically do. Having recently gorged on this city’s visual (and culinary) treats, I’ll update you on why Philly is such a hot destination for connoisseurs of art—and fine hotels.

the yin and yang of hotels

This being an art-focused weekend, I stayed at Starwood’s Le Meridien Philadelphia. Located near central Philadelphia’s City Hall, itself a work of art, Le Meridien occupies a former YMCA with a 1912 stone-and-brick facade. Each guestroom, though, is decidedly modern, with a black-and-white color scheme relieved by splashes of red and, instead of a conventional desk, a draftsman’s table and high chair. There’s a lively lounge scene, too and more partying in a sky-lit, 75-ft., brick-walled atrium. The guests here aren’t actually artists—this isn’t Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel crowd—but they are successful people who appreciate contemporary style. Doubles from $224 for March weekends.

The Rittenhouse hotel, a longtime favorite, serves a different market than Le Meridien’s. Facing one of America’s finest urban squares, this recently renovated, century-old landmark is for people who want traditional luxuries (albeit with WiFi and iPod docking stations), including plush chairs, handsome bookshelves, and a staff whose manners are as polished as the furniture. The modern spa, fitness center, and restaurants are top-notch, and the neighborhood harbors yet more restaurants, including BYOBs with real chefs, an only-in-Philadelphia phenomenon. Doubles from $329 for March weekends. The Rittenhouse offers a special FAM travel agent rate based on availability. It includes a personalized tour with director of sales, Lori Coopersmith.

philly’s rich hotel pipeline
The possibility of a casino hotel in the stadium section of town, which is southeast of the city-center, has certainly been getting its share of headlines. However, here’s what many people are missing: Philadelphia has 50 percent as many hotel rooms as New York City despite having about 18.75 percent as many people. What’s more, that inventory includes world-class luxury hotels. And for a capper, additional instant classics will open over the next few years.

+ In 2016, SLS Hotel and Residences will debut just south of City Hall as the tallest residential building in Pennsylvania (47 stories). Its many amenities are to include 150 rooms, 125 condos, a sundeck, an 85-ft. indoor pool, and a spa. “This is a game-changer for Philadelphia and the Avenue of the Arts [South Broad Street]—a corridor of culture and commerce to which I have been professionally and personally committed,” says Carl Dranoff, CEO of Dranoff Properties, which is partnering with sbe on this project.

+ Speaking of “tallest,” in 2017 a new Four Seasons property will open atop the 59-story Comcast Center, which will be the country’s tallest building outside New York and Chicago. Expect 222 rooms, Four Seasons amenities, and killer views of Benjamin Franklin Parkway and sprawling Fairmont Park.

+ The Peeples Corporation is developing Philadelphia’s third Kimpton property, which will open in 2016 or ‘17. Occupying a former courthouse just one block from the Barnes Foundation, it will have 199 rooms and Kimpton’s patented mix of historical preservation and modern appeal.

+ Starwood will debut a double-header in 2017 near the Reading Market and the Convention Center, in the heart of downtown. This development will be part W (240 rooms) and, for guests who want extended stays, part Element (460 rooms).

+ The Study at University City, opening in 2016, will be a full-service, designer hotel with 212 rooms, much like Hospitality 3’s much-praised sister hotel at Yale University. Prediction: It will attract tourists of an intellectual and artistic bent, as well as people who are actually doing business with the university.

top museums and good news
You can’t walk 15 feet in the Philadelphia Museum of Art without encountering the likes of Marcel Duchamp’s seminal “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” Cezanne’s “Bathers,” and other works that many people assume are in Paris. They’re not. They’re in Philadelphia. PMA’s Medieval, Renaissance, Impressionist, and American collections are world-famous, but this museum harbors surprises, too. Under a staircase(!) I found Diego Rivera’s “Liberation of the Peon.”

Frank Gehry is redesigning PMA’s underutilized spaces to create another 78,000 sq. ft. of galleries, mostly for American, Asian, and Modern art. What’s unique about this particular project is that he found all that space without changing the museum’s beloved exterior. Gehry has said this to the people who will implement his design: “Hurry up. I’m 85; I want to see this.” Can you blame him?

Two other alerts: (1) Through recent acquisitions, PMA now has the definitive collection of Paul Strand’s photographs. From a photography point of view, this is akin to cornering the market on his painter contemporary Georgia O’Keefe. (2) “Discover the [French] Impressionists,” June 24-Sept. 13, will be an international blockbuster.

more france, via barnes and rodin
A few blocks from PMA on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, America’s Champs-Elysees, is the Rodin Museum, with a “Greatest Hits” collection including “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and other masterpieces.

Next door is the Barnes Foundation, which has the world’s largest collection of Impressionist (e.g. 181 Renoirs), Post-Impressionist, and early Modern paintings plus fabulous art from Africa, pre-Impressionist Europe, and (surprise!) Pennsylvania. This private collection now occupies a new building whose interior reproduces the late Dr. Barnes’ rooms and displays. Barnes’ groupings of works used to drive me crazy­—medieval martyrs alongside 19th century maidens?—but ultimately, they’ve made me look at art instead of obsessing over chronology. Reservations required. Also, a must-see exhibition, “Picasso and the Great War,” will be up February-May 2016.

early american nude and notes on dracula
America’s oldest art school and museum (1805) is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, just north of City Hall. The building is grandeur itself, with an ecclesiastical facade, mosaic ground floor, semi-Gothic arches, and a robber baron double staircase. The American collection is outstanding, from “Ariadne Asleep on the Isle of Naxos,” one of the first nudes painted here, to Thomas Hart Benton’s “Aaron,” portraying a bewhiskered, elderly African-American lost in thought. “The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism & the Garden Movement, 1887-1920,” is more than appropriate in this city that loves Impressionism and boasts the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, yet another supporter of art in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library, created by two brothers who were America’s leading rare books dealers, displays art as well as books in two connected townhouses, but even with the country’s largest collection of oil-on-metal miniatures, the books and manuscripts get top billing. Amid the bookcases on the second floor I study Bram Stoker’s plot notes for “Dracula”—on hotel stationery—and a handwritten poem Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) wrote to the girl who inspired “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” An early draft of the Declaration of Independence surprises me; it calls for the abolition of slavery. “Everything Is Going on Brilliantly: Oscar Wilde in Philadelphia,” runs through April 26.

If you could change the signage in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (aka Penn Museum), then—voila!—it would be an art museum. Yes, the Asian, Egyptian Fertile Crescent, Byzantine, sub-Sahara African, and Amerindian collections are that beautiful. A gold Mesopotamian bull with a full beard looks around with alert eyes; an archaic Greek face breaks into a smile of Mona Lisa mystery; glaze drips down the necks of two life-size Chinese ceramic steeds. A museum guard sees some visitors stop to talk about an Egyptian sculpture looming over them. The guard (not a curator, a guard) walks over and shares some erudite comments about Egyptian art.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive):
Boston Calling (September 2014) 

contact information
Most of the hotels being built now do not yet have websites, so in those cases the best way to make inquiries or learn more about them is to use the contacts offered here.
Four Seasons: Jeanne Leonard, (610) 648-1704; jleonard@libertyproperty.com
Kimpton: P & A Associates, (215) 320-3780
Le Meriden Philadelphia: (866) 531-0170; starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien or spg.com/pro
The Rittenhouse: (800) 635-1042; rittenhousehotel.com
SLS Hotel and Residences: Meg Kane, (484) 385-2938; mkane@briancom.com
The Study at University City: Ashley Sheen, (212) 951-2202; asheen@studyhotels.com
W and Elements: Meg Kane, (484) 385-2938; mkane@briancom.com or spg.com/pro