The Fleisher Years Chapter 5: The Graphic Sketch Club Becomes Fleisher Art Memorial (1944–)

In 1944, after almost 50 years of growth guided by an ambitious and dedicated founder, the Graphic Sketch Club would take on new leadership and a new name. After Samuel Fleisher’s passing on January 20, 1944, his will directed that the Club be renamed the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, and that it be managed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Leaving the income from his residuary estate to the museum, amounting just over half a million dollars, he requested that these funds be used solely and exclusively for the upkeep and operation of the Memorial as a school or museum. 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art created a committee and appointed chairmen and managers dedicated to this purpose, overseeing the programs, collections, and facilities of the Memorial. Meanwhile, Fleisher’s singular vision of high-quality, tuition-free art instruction continued in classes led by working artists in a wide range of mediums. Two years later, in 1946, a summer program for youth would be introduced – a sign of continuing growth. (The program continues to this day, now known as Fleisher’s Summer Camp!)

Fleisher Art Memorial also benefited from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s vast collections and expert curators, as lesser works in the Fleisher collection were replaced by museum-quality objects that complimented the Sanctuary’s Romanesque style and ecclesiastic history. The new collection included sculptures, triptychs, and altarpieces which were installed alongside the original Graphic Sketch Club objects. In 1955, the Memorial accepted a gift by celebrated American artist John LaFarge – a stained-glass window that consists of three panels, symbolizing art, education and music. The window, currently located of the east side of the front façade, replaced an earlier stained-glass window that was sold before the church closed.

As renovations began in the mid-1970s, in part to address ongoing issues with temperature and humidity control, most of the artwork was removed and placed back in permanent storage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as use of the Sanctuary was dedicated primarily to art classes, meetings, and performances.  A rehabilitation and restoration program continued into the 1980s as Fleisher prepared for the Sanctuary’s centennial year in 1986. The Sanctuary’s lighting system was redesigned, the roof was repaired, temperature and humidity control systems were installed, the stained-glass windows were conserved, and a series of statues returned from storage to be reintegrated into the space. In the years that followed, the restored Romanesque revival Sanctuary continued—and continues—to provide an evocative site for exploring the potential of art, education, and music, harkening back to the themes of John LaFarge’s stained-glass panels residing overhead.

The design of the Sanctuary, as originally imagined by the late Rev. Henry R. Percival, was inspired by early Italian basilican architecture. As we close out this chapter, it’s worth noting that in ancient Rome, long before becoming a common architectural style for Christian churches, a basilica functioned more as a meeting hall where courts were held, as well as serving other public functions. It was, in short, a core gathering space for the city. In that sense, it is only fitting that what was originally presented as an Episcopal church would take on new and unexpected dimensions as part of the Graphic Sketch Club, continuing to break the mold after Fleisher’s passing. From presenting workshops, concerts, and theatrical performances to hosting wedding celebrations and serving as a neighborhood polling place, today’s Sanctuary remains a core gathering place for Philadelphians of all ages. 

In upcoming installments of The Fleisher Years, we’ll delve into Sanctuary-adjacent programs and gathering spaces designed to serve a similar purpose. Stay tuned to learn more about the inception of The Challenge Exhibition Series and the Louis Kahn Lecture Room, designed by Siah Armajani.  

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