How a movie magnate built Philly’s priceless Rodin museum in the heart of the Great Depression

Hidden in plain sight behind shadowy trees along the Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum is so unique that it’s basically priceless.

A gift to the city from a theater magnate in the 1920s, the institution maintains pay-what-you-wish admission, which welcomes visitors to a rotating art collection so lauded and expansive curators find it hard to cite its exact monetary value.

The museum is also representative of one of the most Francophile experiences in the United States.

It’s built from a limestone nicknamed “Paris stone” following a plan by French-born Philadelphian Paul Cret. French landscape architect Jacques-Henri-Auguste Gréber, the man who fashioned the Parkway after the Champs-Élysées in Paris, was also involved in its design.

In front of the museum’s grounds and garden — behind the famous “Thinker” — is a replica of a giant marble and iron gate sculptor Auguste Rodin built at his own home in France. Walk through it to get to the building’s stunning entrance, home to the first-ever bronze cast of Rodin’s famous “Gates of Hell.” It’s one of only three original casts in the world.

Other than that, Rodin’s estate in the Parisian suburb of Meudon is home to a near-carbon copy of the Philadelphia museum. Both projects were funded by Jules Mastbaum, a Philadelphia movie tycoon with an eye (and budget) for the luxurious.

“He seemed to think that there was value in bringing high French art into American spaces,” said Alexander Kauffman, curator of the current exhibition at the Philly museum.

A vignette in Rodin's 'Gates of Hell' at the Philadelphia museum

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'The Gates of Hell'

Kim Paynter / WKimberly Paynter / WHYYHYY

The year was 1929. The Philadelphia Athletics baseball team had just won the World Series over the Chicago Cubs. Two weeks after that championship, Black Monday happened, setting off the greatest economic depression in modern American history.

But just one month later, the $2 million Rodin Museum opened on Ben Franklin Parkway with great fanfare. At least 2,000 people, including the French ambassador, came to witness one of Philadelphia’s greatest artistic spectacles to date.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article called the museum “the most important collection of Rodiniana in America.” A New York Times piece highlighted the museum opening as “a new bond with France.”

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Mastbaum had the resources to make it happen. He owned more than 200 movie houses — fancy ones. In 1926, a series of five new theaters were expected to cost more than $1,500,000 each. That’s equivalent to almost $22 million each today.

The theater mogul first acquired works from Rodin during a trip to Paris in 1923, six years after Rodin’s death. He returned repeatedly, picking up more and more of the French sculptor’s work. During one such trip in 1926, Mastbaum reportedly returned to the states with hundreds of the artist’s papers and more than 245 works — 40 of which were gifted by the French government.

Said Mastbaum at the time: “[T]here was an eager desire that the culture and thought of France should be interpreted through the mighty chisel of France to America.”

The businessman died in 1926, three years before he could see his Parisian vision come to life in his native Philadelphia.

His widow, Etta Mastbaum, carried out the rest of the arrangements, overseeing the construction and opening of the museum. Though there’s no indication of her work inside the structure — some say she didn’t want to be commemorated, preferring to give her husband the glory, “we really have her to thank,” said Kauffman, the museum curator.

Jules Mastbaum's bust by Heri Gréber is on display at the museum

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Mastbaum’s bust rests against a wall in the center of the museum, which is so tiny that a tour could be completed in about 45 minutes.

His full collection doesn’t fit into the small museum all at once. It’s also extremely hard to price, museum representatives said, because of the extent of its holding and an ever-fluctuating art market. It’s pretty much irreplicable.

“You couldn’t form this collection today,” Kauffman said, “even if you wanted to.”

Now 90 years old, the museum underwent a significant, four-year renovation and deep cleaning that saw it temporarily closed before relaunching in 2012 with a host of changes.

Instead of remaining stagnant, the collection now rotates every two years. Also new is a seasonal garden bar where guests can enjoy drinks and an after-hours tour. The effort has boosted visitorship, museum reps said — which was already high after a surge in 2017, the centennial anniversary of Rodin’s death.

Currently on display is an exhibition curated by Kauffman called, “Rethinking the Modern Monument.”

Museum curators try to visually demonstrate the influence of Rodin, placing 'The Dancers (Sailor and Sweetheart)' by Chana Orloff directly in line with one of Rodin’s most popular works, 'The Kiss'

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Opened in February, it’s the first in the museum’s history to feature work from artists other than its namesake. It combines some of Rodin’s most ostracized pieces with works inspired by him to explore at a longstanding question — What should be monumentalized, and how? — in the context of recent conversations about removing confederate statues and the debate over Philly’s controversial Frank Rizzo likeness.

It’s a fitting vibe for a museum in the heart of the city that’s been around for decades and yet still manages to feel like a new discovery.

Rodin’s work 'The Three Shades' is installed in the garden
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A view of the entrance gate in 1929, when the museum first opened