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John G. Johnson's Art

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How the art bequest of America's top lawyer was ignored.

John G. Johnson

The Barnes Foundation's move from Merion to the Parkway isn't the first controversial move of a wealthy Philadelphian's art collection. The John G. Johnson collection is a major component of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but that was not what John G. Johnson had in his mind, or in his will.

      When Johnson died in 1917, arguably the most famous and wealthiest lawyer in America, his will directed that his paintings be displayed in his mansion at Broad and Lombard Streets. The city administration and the cultural establishment coveted the collection for its proposed new museum. There was contention and litigation for some 40 years. Posthumously, Johnson lost, something he rarely did in life.

      John Graver Johnson was born in 1841. His father was David Johnson, a blacksmith in Chestnut Hill. His mother was Elizabeth Graver; her family owned a farm that gave Graver's Lane its name. The humble Johnson house still stands, on Germantown Ave., tucked in between the more recent buildings of the Chestnut Hill Business Association headquarters and the Diamond Spa, a toney beauty emporium. It is owned by Chestnut Hill real estate czar Richard Snowden's Bowman Properties.

      Johnson seemed to have been born a lawyer. He passed the bar examination immediatley after attending Central High School, but could be only a clerk until he was 21. Then he opened an office at 708 Walnut St. In complex trials that went on for days, when Johnson's turn came he would clear up a legal tangle with a few terse sentences. His quick paperwork and succinct court appearances became the talk of the legal community.

      Johnson's courtroom dominance resulted partly from his extraordinary memory. His head was full of case law, which he recited rapidly and sent rival attorneys back to the bookshelves. (As a schoolboy, he had memorized Shakespeare plays for his own amusement.)

      By the time he was 28, Johnson was specializing in property rights and estate work. He handled the clearing of title for the transfer of League Island to the government for construction of the Navy Yard after the Civil War (in which he served briefly as an artillery man, but saw no action.) His local clients included Peter A. B. Widener, William L. Elkins, John Wanamaker and Baldwin Locomotives.

      Then, he took the case of a United States anti-trust suit against the American Sugar Refining Co., which was said to control 98 percent of American sugar refining. Johnson cunningly convinced the U. S. Supreme Court that sugar refining was not interstate commerce. Soon he was defending anti-trust work for the American Tobacco Co., Standard Oil Co., United States Steel and several big banks and railroads. Such tycoons as J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie became clients.

      The word workaholic hadn't yet been coined, but Johnson was one. That changed a bit, in September of 1871, when Ida Powell Morrell asked him to handle the estate of her husband, who had died at age 47.. She was 30, Johnson's age, with three young children. Her husband, Edward Morrell, had once been a lawyer in Johnson's office. Ida was a daughter of Robert Hare Powel, descended from a half dozen early Philadelphians on her father's side and about the same number of New York aristocrats on her mother's. Her father's family estate gave the city's Powelton neighborhood its name, and her son's estate would give its name to the Morrell Park neighborhood.

      In 1875, Ida married John Johnson, the blacksmith's son who had become a legal genius, and he settled down, as much as a legal dynamo could. Or could afford to. In the 1880s, Johnson declined offers to become a Supreme Court justice from both Presidents Garfield and Cleveland, and later turned down the post of U. S. Attorney General offered by President McKinley. He once told a colleague he couldn't afford a Washington appointment. He was earning more than twice the president's salary, and was said to be one of only three Philadelphia lawyers of that era making six figures.

      Tales of his legal behavior were the gossip of the Philadelphia bar. A corporation's executives once tracked him down while he was traveling in Europe, and cabled him for an opinion on a proposed merger that might be a wee bit illegal. Johnson, annoyed that his trip was interrupted, sent back a four word reply, "Combination possible. Jail certain," and billed them $10,000.

      Johnson's fee in the Northern Securities anti-trust case before the Supreme Court in 1904 was said to be the largest legal fee ever paid to one man in this country at the time -- $500,000, worth more than $12 million in 2012 dollars. Yet Johnson willingly took small cases from ordinary peopleand  was noted for charging modest fees, which drew the dislike of some other lawyers.

      From early in his career, Johnson spent money for art. During summer months when courts were closed, he traveled to Europe and bought paintings. He didn't use an agent or professional advice, but turned his prodigious legal mind to studying what was valuable and what was available. Soon, works of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Manet, Degas, Holbein, da Vinci, Hogarth, Gainsborough, virtually any artist you could name, and many you probably couldn't, adorned the walls of his house.

      His original will stated: "Shall I, prior to my decease, become the owner of a house fitted for the display of my works of art, such house and grounds shall pass to the city." Otherwise, the will specified, a suitable art gallery at some central site or accessible place in Fairmount Park should be started within six months of his death.

      When he began to accumulate masterpieces, Johnson lived in a modest house on the northwest corner of Broad and Lombard Sts. He later purchased a three-story brick mansion at 506 South Broad St., behind the First United Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner. The art collection soon started outgrowing even that house. Mrs. Johnson died there in 1908, at age 67.

      In 1910, the Presbyterian congregation, which was organized about 1769 and had been on Broad Street since 1854, moved to a new edifice at 52nd St. and Chester Ave. That change next door may have influenced Johnson, or perhaps it was just a desire for more space for his collection, but in 1915, he bought the adjacent gray Edwardian mansion at 510 South Broad, and moved his collection next door. He sold 506 to W. Harry Baker, chairman of the Republican State Committee, and it became state GOP headquarters for 14 years.

      The mansion at number 510 had wide circular stairs rising to the fourth floor, its handrails upholstered in plush. Ornate fireplaces, one decorated with tiles depicting Bible scenes, reflected off carved walnut woodwork and huge chandeliers. There, Johnson could exhibit his beloved paintings in style. They hung from floor to ceiling in every available space, including bathrooms, the backs of closet doors and on the foot of his bed. Sculpture stood everywhere.

      The church was demolished in 1917. In 1919, a brick theater that seated 1,400, the Dunbar Theatre, opened on the corner of Broad and Lombard. African American musicals and road shows were presented, principally by a Harlem repertory company. It later was renamed the Gibson, and finally became a movie house, the Lincoln.

      John G. Johnson never saw all that. He had been treated for a heart condition for seven years. At 2 A. M. on April 14, 1917, he died in his sleep at age 76. His obituary in the New York Times said that he was considered the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world.

      Johnson had written his will in 1912, and had done frequent lawyerly tinkering with it ever since. He  surely knew that plans were afoot to build an art museum on the new Parkway; he was a member of the Fairmount Park Commission. But he was also on the board of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In one change in his will, he left his art collection to the city of Philadelphia, on the condition that it would be exhibited in his house at 510 South Broad. Otherwise, the collection would go to the Met in New York.

      In a final codicil, four months before he died, he again ruled that the house would pass to the city, directing that the paintings would stay on exhibit  there "unless some extraordinary situation shall arise making it exceedingly injudicious to keep them in the house."

      The city government was happy to accept the art collection, but some leaders had more grandiose plans in mind. The new Parkway (not yet named for Ben Franklin) had just been opened to its full length, and the cultural establishment saw an opportunity to erect a fine museum of art there. The politicians also saw opportunity for some dandy construction contracts to their favorite contractors. And what better place to put the art collection that the city had just inherited?

      On December 10, 1918, the public got its first hint of things to come, under an Evening Bulletin headline that said, "Parkway Temple for Johnson Art." A morning Record headline next day was, "Great Structure On Parkway; Will is an Obstacle." Design work began for the museum in 1919; construction began in 1921.

      As the walls of the Art Museum rose atop the abandoned reservoir on Fairmount, so did the desire of many city leaders rise to send the Johnson art to the new museum. That probably included men from the institution that administered the Johnson trust, the venerable Pennsylvania Company for the Insurance of Lives and Granting Annuities. Since 1919, the Broad Str. mansion had been open to the public fitfully. In 1921, the city government petitioned Orphan's Court for permission to sell the building at 510 South Broad and use the money toward the already over-budget museum project. A judge ruled against the city, citing the clear intent of the will that the paintings should remain on view in Johnson's house.

      A new strategy sneaked onto the sccene in April, 1922, when City Councilman Charles B. Hall, a sturdy representative of the Vare brothers' Republican machine, arose in council chambers to denounce one-way streets as a danger that should be illegal. They prevented fire engines from taking direct routes, caused strangers in motor cars to get lost, and were in general detrimental to the "health, comfort and pleasure of my district." When a cynic pointed out that cutting through little one-way Naudain St. from 15th to Broad, in Hall's district, would incidentally require the demolition of 510 South Broad St., home of a certain art collection, Hall snapped, "Let the Johnson art collection be hanged." He didn't say where he wanted it hanged.

      In the same month, an old friend of Johnson's, George W. Norris, a blue-blooded banker and political reformer who was no friend of the Vares, published an open letter to Mayor J. Hampton Moore. Norris wrote that Johnson had told him that in case of that "extraordinary situation" mentioned in his will, he wanted his paintings exhibited "in a plain brick building." Otherwise, they would got to the Met in New York. Norris was ignored, of course.

      The Johnson collection languished until 1933, when Mayor Moore's office announced that the trustees had agreed to allow a temporary exhibition of Johnson's collection. The Broad St. gallery was closed in June. The trust's lawyer announced that "the trustee is not unmindful" of the will's provision that the art stay on Broad St. But he pointed out that the will provided that the art should not be moved "unless some extraordinary situation shall arise." The extraordinary situation then in progress was that the city owned the art, and owed the trust money for the building's maintenance. Unless the city ponied up, the paintings would have to be "stored" at the Art Museum temporarily. When the maintenance funding matter was cleared up, the works would be returned to the Johnson house, "and there exhibited in accordance with the will."

      On June 14, 1933, Mayor Moore announced that the Johnson trustees had agreed that the collection, consisting of some 1,400 paintings, sculptures and other art objects valued at $2 million, would be exhibited temporarily at the Art Museum. Maurice Bower Saul, counsel for the trust, wrote to the mayor, as usual invoking the " extraordinary situation" provision of the will, saying, "The trustee is of opinion that an extraordinary situation has arisen not only making it exceedingly injudicious to maintain the gallery at Mr. Johnson's old residence, but a situation has arisen making it temporarily impossible to exhibit the pictures in the Johnson gallery."

      The Johnson collection was hauled from Broad St. to the Art Museum on June 16. The new temporary galleries were opened to a private viewing on October 28, and to the public the next day. The city turned the Johnson mansion over to the Works Project Administration, where it housed cultural projects financed by that Depression-era government agency, including compilation of an Index of American Design.

      The trustees and the city agreed, in 1940, that the trust would lease 12 galleries in the Art Museum for 15 years, solely for exhibition of the collection. Upon the official opening in November, 1941, with 575 works on display and some 600 in storage, Time magazine wrote that the Art Musuem, before the Johnson collection, "stood so long half occupied at the end of the Parkway like an Acropolis with painted toenails."

      In 1942, as World War II  changed the public's priorities, the city turned the Johnson mansion over to the United Service Organization for a service men's club.

      As far as the public was concerned, the Johnson collection was part of the Art Museum. Legally, it was still on temporary loan, with the spirit of Johnson's bequest haunting the galleries. In 1955, the 15 year lease ended. In April, the trustees petitioned Orphans Court for permission to leave the collection, by then valued at $10 million, permanently at the museum, and to sell 510 South Broad St. The judge demanded a complete physical inventory of the collection, citing the fact, admitted by the museum director, that a Renoir had disappeared from the museum walls.

      A proposal had been in the works as early as 1950 to create a Lombard St. Expressway from river to river, and space had to be created for the possible widening of Lombard St. That would require the demolition of the old Johnson mansion.

      Meanwhile, Philadelphia politics had changed when Joseph S. Clark, a Democrat, was elected mayor in 1952, and succeeded by Richardson Dilworth in 1956. The new city leadership concocted a new Johnson strategy. On Feb. 2, 1956, the Democrat majority in City Council tentatively approved the location of a new city health center on the southwest corner of Broad and Lombard. The city had already purchased the old Lincoln Theater for the expressway project, and plans had already been drawn for the health center..

      Two weeks later, the City Planning Commission okayed tearing down the Johnson mansion, setting back the health center 74 feet further than planned, and using the space remaining between the building and Lombard for parking until the new expressway was built. It never was built, and the parking lot is still with us.

      In 1958, the matter was in court again. In decisions in June and December, President Judge Charles Klein of Orphans Court gave permission to the city to pay a lease to the Johnson trust for 50 years, leave the collection at the museum, and tear down the house at 510 South Broad to make way for the health center. The judge accused the city of permitting the mansion to deteriorate until it was not suitable to house the art collection. He blamed the situation on "the improper conduct of those to whom the testator entrusted his precious possessions."

      The 50 years were up in 2008. The Johnson collection remains in its Greek temple, and now the Barnes collection has been moved from Merion to become its neighbor, down the street. Maybe Albert Barnes and John G. Johnson are commiserating as they look down on the Parkway, from wherever in art collectors' heaven disregarded testators go.


Johnson's birthplace
506 S. Broad Streeet
510 S. Broad Street


John G. Johnson's birthplace in Chestnut Hill, and the two mansions at Broad and Lombard Streets that originally housed his fabulous art collection.

[A much shorter version of this article previously appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local.].

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