The Mummers Parade is easily the best-known Philadelphia New Year’s tradition, and the New Year’s Day romp down Broad Street draws people from all over the area. A colorful celebration in a colorful city, it’s an expression of civic exuberance unmatched elsewhere, and an affirmation of the city’s life and the lives of its citizens. Not to mention it’s a blast.
The Mummers Museum, however, is not nearly as well known. The Art Deco palace at “Two Street” and Washington Avenue in Pennsport, built in 1976 as part of the city’s Bicentennial celebration, eagerly reflects the spirit, history and traditions of its namesake. The costumes inside, bedecked in sequins, neon and feathers, are its biggest draw, but the architecture and design reflect the same spirit of excitement and adventure.
The spire that reaches high above the museum’s main body is meant to represent the plumes that shoot from most Mummers’ shoulders, arcing above their heads like a massive peacock’s display. Mostly built of glass, the spire is illuminated at night and, on this low-lying end of Washington Avenue, is a very visible landmark. Bright and bold, the façade’s angular display is made from imported Belgian tiles, meant to reflect the riot of color that Mummers wear for the day. The project was born of a collaboration between longtime Philadelphia resident Connie McHugh and Mayor Frank Rizzo, who initially approved the project. The Bicentennial Committee approved architect Julend Unker’s design in 1974, and construction began shortly after. Taking the place of a parking lot and a firehouse, the museum was projected to last no more than five years, like many of the Bicentennial Committee’s efforts, which were assumed to be temporary. However, since opening on April Fool’s Day in 1976 it still stands, largely unchanged, at the corner of 2nd and Washington.
The construction was funded by the city at a cost of about $1.5 million, and the state kicked in about $200,000 to cover collecting and opening the exhibits, which are mostly elaborate displays of Mummers’ costumes. The museum’s operating budget is now funded entirely by ticket sales to the public. The interior is marked by large, curving walls, creating smooth bends in hallways. On the second floor of the two-story structure, the walls are covered with squares, some illuminated from behind, presenting historical trivia about the Mummers, from the all-time low temperature during the parade to the winning string bands in the 80s. The vast, boxy exhibition space on the same floor holds the majority of the museum’s costume collection.
A huge mural covers the wall against the staircase in the lobby, and bright vanity bulbs line a huge mirror on the opposite side. Painted figures and line drawings cover many walls, and the downstairs contains a stage and exhibition space, which hosts concerts on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer. It’s fitting that the spirit of the Mummers Parade should live in such a building year round, but it’s a shame that it’s not nearly as well known as the spectacle it enshrines. The architecture of the museum, much like the costumes it holds, is fun, effusive, and alone worth a visit.