PHILADELPHIA -- After more than three years of torn-up landscaping, yellow caution tape, billows of steam and dust, bike barricades, convoluted entrance routes, vanished sculptures, and, lately, a building shut as tight as a limestone crypt, the Rodin Museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has emerged as something both familiar and utterly startling.
This is no nip-and-tuck job, no simple face-lift. The Rodin and its surrounding gardens have been transported back in time to 1929, thanks to a $9.1 million reincarnation of the original vision of architect Paul Cret and landscape architect Jacques Greber.
The museum celebrates the work of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), a French sculptor who became the preeminent French sculptor of his time. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist.
Friday's reopening of the museum at 22nd Street is the latest in a series of 2012 Parkway enrichments, among them the new Barnes Foundation building next door and, a few blocks away at Logan Square, the new Sister Cities Park.
All its sculptural figures have been returned to their original settings at the entrance, in building and gate niches, and outside in the gardens.
Almost all the sculptures -- which have not been arrayed outside together in more than half a century -- have been cleaned and restored. The monumental Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin's great masterpiece, 37 years in the making, is being worked on; only The Burghers of Calais, once again set in the east garden, remains to be cleaned.
For the first time The Burghers are paired with a monumental sculpture in the west garden -- a never-realized element of the original Cret plan -- thanks to a long-term loan of Three Shades from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
Inside, the galleries have been completely restored in what Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has called an "archaeological" effort.
Where once faux-marble covered central gallery walls, visitors now encounter pale linen. The small octagonal side galleries are washed in Pompeian red, not yellow or olive green. Paint has been removed from wood appointments and furnishings and from the imitation Caen stone of entrance vestibules left and right.
The galleries inside have been reinstalled to emphasize the importance of The Gates of Hell as a continuing source of inspiration to Rodin and to explore Rodin's public monuments and his Balzac sculpture, looking down on the roiling damned.
The Art Museum administers the Rodin Museum, which houses the collection of about 130 sculptures assembled by Philadelphia movie mogul Jules Mastbaum and bestowed on the city. Most of the Rodin sculptures here, like at other museums around the world, weren't cast in bronze until years after his death.
Mastbaum, who died in 1926 before the museum opened, commissioned a copy of Rodin's great marble The Kiss from the Musee Rodin in Paris. (Rodin died in 1917.) The copy, sculpted by Henri Greber, father of the museum's landscape architect, served as the centerpiece of the main gallery from 1929 until 1967.
That year, it was decided that the Rodin sculptures arrayed outside in niches and on the grounds had to be sheltered from pollutants showering down through the city's industrial atmosphere.
They were all brought inside, crowding out The Kiss.
But since this popular replica was central to Mastbaum's vision and Cret's architectural conception, it has now been returned, after a cleaning and restoration.
"They wanted this thing here," Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator for the museum, said. "Cret was here practically every day, supervising every detail. It was all part of the fabric of the original. This is what you would have seen when it opened in 1929."
Sally Malenka, conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, spearheaded the archaeological dig into the museum's past, discovering the original painted wall surfaces and other obliterated elements through examination of paint chips, Cret's drawings and accounts, and contemporary newspaper descriptions.
The Thinker, perhaps Rodin's most famous piece, was originally conceived as a small brooding figure at the top of The Gates.
The museum's large Thinker was cleaned and refurbished in 2009 during landscaping restoration by the firm of Laurie C. Olin. It sits again in front of the museum. A smaller version, usually on display at the Art Museum, will now greet visitors in the main gallery.
Where: Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Monday.
Admission: Adults $8, seniors (65+) $7, students (with valid ID) $6, youth (13--18) $6, children (12 and under) free. Philadelphia Museum of Art members free.
Information: www. rodinmuseum.org.
First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM