Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Mid-Century Masterpiece: Pour a martini and celebrate the golden anniversary of the State Museum building.

Screenshot 2015-02-22 11.27.06And it’s round because?

The 1965 State Museum of Pennsylvania is round because the 1956 Labor and Industry Building up the street was a high-rise slab. Because architects Lawrie & Green wanted to “soften the entire vista of the area.”

Because Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular Guggenheim in New York brought flow to contemporary museums. And maybe because other state government buildings—from florid Beaux Arts to staid neo-Colonial—represented bygone eras in the age of Sputnik and Apollo.

“It’s all about the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and that modernist, looking-to-the-future idea, trying to be relevant with younger people,” says Beth Hager, director of strategic initiatives for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “It’s a whole different aesthetic, a break from what had been expected.”

On Oct. 13, 1965, what was then called the William Penn Memorial Museum was dedicated, making 2015 the 50th anniversary year of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the commonwealth’s collected history in flora, fauna, art, artifacts and documents. In fact, the entire complex clocks in at half-a-century this year: the museum, the monolith-style State Archives tower and the surrounding plaza.

With today’s heightened interest in all things mid-century modern—thank you, “Mad Men”—staffers say they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary with a “Back to the Future” approach, recalling an age when the nation was shedding the flourishes of the past and going streamlined.

“It’s a government entity, but always remember we’re an educational institution,” says Hager. Education means “being fresh to young people, whether it be the colors or the space-age architecture, which was looking forward at that time.”

People’s Archives

The William Penn Memorial Museum emerged from the confluence of two post-World War II trends.

The first advocated for a memorial befitting the gigantic stature of Pennsylvania founder William Penn. The other, driven by historian and PHMC Executive Director Sylvester K. Stevens, clamored for a modern facility to house natural and social history collections crammed in the original State Museum, now the Matthew J. Ryan Building on Capitol Hill.

With legislative action and an $11 million appropriation, the William Penn Memorial Museum became reality. Unlike other Capitol Complex buildings, its construction wasn’t touched by scandal, but there was a hitch. The first exhibit, a display of N.C. Wyeth paintings, didn’t open until a week after the dedication. Such major exhibits as Mammal Hall wouldn’t open until 1968.

“Harrisburg Gets Museum—Empty,” headlined a snarky New York Times story. In it, Stevens derided “hard-headed budget officials” for their “lack of advance planning and contracts for exhibit work.”

A 2005 history by PHMC Associate Historian Eric Ledell Smith painted a more nuanced picture. To the confusion of the architects, museum officials eschewed formal, permanent galleries in favor of open spaces “that would be needed for the wide range of exhibits that were contemplated.” Plus, the lineup of architects, contractors and state staffers needed to coordinate gallery construction wasn’t entirely in place.

“You grow into museums rather than moving into them, but this is hard to make the public or sometimes a legislator, understand,” former museum Director William Richards said of the time.

Today’s staffers appreciate the forethought of those early designers.

“It’s the people’s museum, the people’s archives,” says Hager. “When the building was built, it was so important to have a big space that you could do anything in. It was really meant to be a multi-purpose space, because we already had collections going back 100 years.”

Big Responsibility

Museum and PHMC officials began preparing for the 50th anniversary around 2011, when PHMC Executive Director James M. Vaughan first took his post. The logo designed in-house for the occasion frames the complex’s three elements in the museum’s original color scheme of blue, yellow and coral.

For the 50th, that pallet was incorporated into an overall spiffing up. Original furniture, all in sleek mid-century modern, was reupholstered. Walls, then an institutional green, were repainted.

“There’s something about getting back to the architecture,” says Hager. “When you start to see that, you see that the building just starts to wake up. It likes that.”

Anniversary plans include a “photo glossary” of mid-century architecture, a juried photo exhibit of Pennsylvania’s modern architecture, features on mid-century modern in Pennsylvania Heritage magazine and an October gala. Of course, with budget constraints, no one can party like it’s 1965 anymore. Instead, staffers have looked inwards, spotlighting existing museum resources and collaborating on events and exhibits.

“You work smarter, rethink your systems and how you get things done,” says PHMC External Affairs Director Howard Pollman. “It’s an opportunity for focus.”

Many of the museum’s 100,000 visitors a year, including children on field trips, are seeing a museum for the first time.

“It’s a big responsibility,” says Hager. “It’s all about Pennsylvania. It’s just them getting to know their state and feeling some ownership. Most are in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They’re very excited about learning about their state. It’s a rite of passage.”

As the museum looks ahead, changes big and small are in order. Mammal Hall is slated for restoration with help from the consultants who refurbished the American Museum of Natural History’s dioramas in 2012. The archives will move from the tower to a new space with 21st-century climate controls and electronic capabilities. And, it’s hoped, sharing collections and findings through social media will combine with the building’s “Mad Men” mystique to engage 20- and 30-somethings.

“This building was built to last,” says Hager. “It was built to change.”

Or as Pollman puts it, “Back to the future is a good way to go.”

Follow the latest news and events for the 50th anniversary of the State Museum of Pennsylvania building at

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