Chestnut Hill’s own version of a ‘Barnes’ collection’

by James Smart

That little old house at 8428 Germantown Ave. was the birthplace of an art lover who willed that his collection should stay where it was. After his death, it was moved anyway.

No, not Albert Barnes. It was John Graver Johnson, born there in 1841. His father was David Johnson, a blacksmith. His mother was Elizabeth Graver, whose family farm gave Gravers Lane its name.

When Johnson died in 1917, a famous and wealthy lawyer, his will directed that his paintings be displayed in his own mansion at Broad and Lombard Streets. City leaders wanted it for the proposed new art museum. There was contention and litigation for some 40 years. Posthumously, Johnson lost, something he rarely did in life.

Johnson’s historic home at 8428 Germantown Ave. is now home to CW Journeys, a travel agency. (Photo by Len Lear)

Johnson seemed to have been born a lawyer. He passed the bar examination immediately after attending Central High School, but could be only a clerk until he was 21. Then he opened an office at 708 Walnut St. By the time he was 28, Johnson’s local clients included Peter A. B. Widener, William L. Elkins, John Wanamaker and Baldwin Locomotives.

In a U.S. anti-trust suit against the American Sugar Refining Co., said to control 98 percent of American sugar refining, Johnson convinced the U. S. Supreme Court that sugar refining was not interstate commerce. Soon his client list included the American Tobacco Co., Standard Oil Co., U.S. Steel, J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

In 1875, the Chestnut Hill blacksmith’s son married Ida Powell Morrell, a young widow with three children, from an old Philadelphia family. Johnson declined offers to become a Supreme Court justice from both Presidents Garfield and Cleveland and the post of U. S. Attorney General offered by President McKinley. He couldn’t afford the cut in income.

From early in his career, Johnson traveled to Europe and bought paintings. Works of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Manet, Degas, Holbein, da Vinci, Hogarth and Gainsborough adorned the walls of his house.

Johnson first lived in a modest house on the northwest corner of Broad and Lombard Streets. He later purchased a three-story brick mansion at 506 S. Broad St., near the southwest corner. Mrs. Johnson died there in 1908, at age 67. In 1915, Johnson bought the adjacent gray Edwardian mansion at 510 S. Broad St. and moved his collection next door. His beloved paintings 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.

On April 14, 1917, he died in his sleep of a heart condition at age 76. He had written his will in 1912 and had done frequent lawyerly tinkering with it after that. In a final codicil, four months before he died, he 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. The new Parkway had just been opened to its full length, and the cultural establishment wanted to erect a museum of art there. On December 10, 1918, the public got its first hint of things to come under an Evening Bulletin headline, “Parkway Temple for Johnson Art.” A morning Record headline next day was: “Great Structure On Parkway; Will is an Obstacle.”

Construction of the museum began in 1921. The city government petitioned Orphans Court for permission to sell 510 S. Broad. A judge ruled against the city, citing the clear intent of the will that the paintings should remain in Johnson’s house.

An odd strategy popped up in April, 1922, however, when City Councilman Charles B. Hall arose in council to denounce one-way streets as a danger that should be made illegal. They prevented fire engines from taking direct routes, caused strangers in motor cars to get lost and were detrimental to the “health, comfort and pleasure of my district.” When a cynic pointed out that cutting through little one-way Naudain Street from 15th to Broad in Hall’s district would incidentally require the demolition of 510 S. 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.

On June 14, 1933, Mayor Moore announced that the Johnson trustees had agreed the collection, consisting of about 1,400 paintings, sculptures and other art objects valued at $2 million, would be exhibited temporarily at the Art Museum. The trust’s lawyer announced that “the trustee is not unmindful” of the will’s provision that the art stay on Broad Street. But he pointed out that the will provided that the art could be moved if “some extraordinary situation shall arise.”

The Johnson collection was hauled from Broad Street to the Art Museum on June 16. The “temporary” galleries were opened to a private viewing on October 28, and to the public the next day. 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.

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, but 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 S. Broad St.

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

Philadelphia politics had changed when Joseph S. Clark, a Democrat, was elected mayor in 1952, and was succeeded by Richardson Dilworth in 1956. The new city leadership concocted a new Johnson strategy. On Feb. 2, 1956, the Democratic majority in City Council tentatively approved the location of a new city health center on the southwest corner of Broad and Lombard.

Two weeks later, the City Planning Commission OK’d tearing down the Johnson mansion, setting back the health center 74 feet farther 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, Orphans Court gave permission to the city to pay a lease to the Johnson trust for 50 years. The judge accused the city of permitting the mansion to deteriorate, criticizing “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.

James Smart, 81, of Mt. Airy, is a local historian, author and former long-time columnist for The Philadelphia Bulletin.