Philly and Athens: sister cities?

This summer, as the world watches the Summer Olympics in Athens, Philadelphians can ponder the unique bond between their city and that paragon of the ancient world. Professor of the History of Art, Lothar Haselberger explored this connection May 1 during the annual Hellenic University Club of Philadelphia Symposium at the Penn Museum.

Haselberger spoke as part of a program that included a demonstration of ancient Greek wrestling, a Greek wine reception and other talks, about democracy, and the Olympic games. But it was Haselberger’s lively trek through ancient Athens and his juxtaposition of that city’s great architecture with Philadelphia that stole the show.

To illustrate the influence of the Hellenic world on Philadelphia, Haselberger screened slides of Greek monuments beside photographs of their counterparts in this metropolis—whose name derives from the Greek translation of “City of Brotherly Love.”

Art museum as Acropolis

Most striking was Haselberger’s comparison of Philadelphia’s art museum and Athens’ Acropolis. As he pointed out, the Philadelphia Museum of Art occupies its “granite plateau in much the same terms as the Acropolis looks over Athens.” The architecture of the building, so familiar to city residents and fans of “Rocky,” said Haselberger, is astonishingly reminiscent of the famous Parthenon.
The similarities don’t stop at the Acropolis. An even more startling rendition of the Parthenon can be seen in the Second Bank of the United States in Independence Park. The nearby Merchants’ Exchange Building, said Haselberger, is a wonderful study of the ancient monument of Lysicrates, while the main building at Girard College, with its massive marble columns, has often been dubbed the world’s greatest recreation of classical architecture.

Haselberger conceded that some symbols of the Hellenic city eluded Philadelphia. “Of course, we don’t have the beautiful gilded ivory statue of Athena, but then again, neither does the Parthenon in Athens.” To find that, you will have to go to Nashville.

Originally published on May 13, 2004