Sure, the Barnes Foundation has the new exhibition Kiefer Rodin, but there’s another juxtaposition of artistic inspiration — more modest, but still intriguing — in West Philadelphia. At the Woodlands, in the Hamilton Mansion (America’s earliest Federal mansion, now undergoing massive renovations), hangs Cret Illustrated: Revisiting a Philadelphia Icon in Sketches.
Artist and preservationist Ben T. Leech created these 30 intimate works over the past year as a personal artistic response to the monumental canon of Beaux Arts architect and Philadelphian Paul Cret. But the connection begins even before you enter the Woodlands and see imposing Hamilton Mansion among headstones and memorials. It starts at Cret’s Classical entry gates fronting Woodland Avenue, sited ironically across the street from the very busy, very non-Classical 40th Street Trolley Portal.
A Philadelphia "starchitect"
If you’ve never heard of Paul Cret (pronounced “Cray”), you’re not alone. If you have, you’re one of the cognoscenti who know him as the early-to-mid-20th-century French-born “starchitect.” Cret’s works were classical in form and his range was huge. His oeuvre includes large works such as the Federal Reserve Bank and the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, and intimate buildings such as Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
He also created architectural details (like those gates) and designed civic spans, including two that Philadelphians cross every day: the Ben Franklin and University Avenue bridges. Cret was also a peerless draftsman. One architect’s professional assessment was the hushed comment, “Man, that guy could really draw.” And drawing is where Ben T. Leech and his exhibition began.
The University of Pennsylvania (where Cret taught) houses a collection of the architect’s exceptional renderings, and Leech studied them in his work as a preservationist. He also filled his sketchbooks (on view here) with renderings of Cret’s Philadelphia.
A collegial conversation between Leech and Jessica Baumert (Director of the Woodlands) led to a discussion of celebrating the historic site’s connections with Cret. Not only did Cret design their impressive entryway, but his house is across the street and he is buried in the cemetery. It seemed a natural progression to formalize some of Leech’s sketches into an exhibition.
But first, the artist had to overcome his intimidation and find a way through the obstacle course created by any comparison to Cret’s mastery and detailed symmetrical drawings. Leech’s style is fluid and emotional — it could hardly be more different. But he found that Cret’s own sketches were often far looser than his final renderings. Leech also discovered there were idiosyncrasies hidden amid the classicism that “invited” him to do his work.
These discoveries opened Leech up (this is his first exhibition) and led to the homage now on view. His thoughtfully executed works are rendered in classic architectural media: ink, pencil, and watercolor on paper. Some are larger in scale or exceptionally intimate. Some depict entire facades or constructions. Leech says his favorite experience was rendering the University Avenue Bridge.
Also notable are a Barnes Foundation chimney (done in ink and watercolor with Hopper overtones) and a tiny, melting watercolor of a door on the Ben Franklin Bridge. Though technically architectural drawings, the images also carry the emotional resonance of Leech’s love for Cret’s work and delight in spending a year with the master.
Though the Woodlands is open dawn to dusk, Leech’s homage can only be viewed on selected Saturdays. Proceeds from the sale of the artist’s drawings and his charming Philadelphia postcard book — as well as other Cret-related materials — will be used to help restore the Woodlands' gates and Cret’s headstone.
Cret was part of an architectural generation that viewed the future through the lens of the past. Leech also looks reverently at the past, his work aptly on view in the elegant ballroom of one of America’s first great houses.