Loss of a Christian Tradition
Wanamaker Masterpiece Paintings

Part of Philadelphia’s heart was lost when a sixty-year-old Wanamaker gift to the people was abolished in the name of progress. On February 24, 1988, the two biblical masterpieces, “Christ before Pilate” and “Christ on Calvary” were sold at Sotheby’s Auction in New York City for slightly under $120,000. This excerpt from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated February 22, 1988, gives the background of the paintings:

The Munkacsy paintings were acquired by John Wanamaker in 1887 and 1888, and were exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. They were hung in Wanamaker’s house, Lindenhurst. When the mansion burned in 1907, the pictures were saved by being cut from their frames. Wanamaker died in 1922. After his wife, Mary, died in 1928, the two large Munkacsy paintings were exhibited every Easter. The rest of the year they were kept in the organ loft. 1

This Easter memorial that had become part of the city of Philadelphia was, with cold calculation, ripped from the hearts of the people of Philadelphia for a mere $118,250. The Wanamaker Department Store had been bought out by Woodward and Lothrop, a well-known East Coast department store chain. (Both Woodward and Lothrop and Sotheby’s are under the same ownership.) The same newspaper article goes on with this commentary:

In October, Woodward and Lothrop sold the Wanamaker building, which fills the block bounded by Chestnut and Market, Juniper and 13th Streets, to California developer, John Kusmiersky. Woodward and Lothrop leased back the lower five floors for Wanamaker, and Kusmiersky plans to convert the upper seven floors to office space.The Easter story paintings are considered the most important and valuable in the collection. “Christ before Pilate” and “Christ on Calvary,” both by the Hungarian artist Mihaly Munkacsy, measure 21 feet across and are nearly 14 ft. high.2

A press release dated March 8, 1988, obtained from the Philadelphia Historical Commission is excerpted below as follows:

HISTORIC WANAMAKER’S DEPARTMENT STORE
TO UNDERGO MIXED-USE RENOVATION

Plans for the restoration, preservation and adaptive reuse of the John Wanamaker Building, one of Philadelphia’s best loved landmarks, were unveiled today in a joint press conference hosted by John Kusmiersky of Philadelphia Center Realty and Ed Hoffman, Chairman of Woodward Lothrop, parent company of John Wanamaker of Philadelphia…This work will be designed and coordinated under the guidelines and scrutiny of the National Park Service. The National Park Service safeguards the integrity of historic structures and has strict rules for the restoration, preservation, and upgrading of these buildings, a vital part of the architectural heritage.

It is unfortunate that big business took precedence over what had become a beautiful part of the city’s history, character and personality. The annual portrayal of the mock trial, agonizing death, burial and glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was coldly removed forever from Philadelphia and America’s Christian heritage.

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Bibliography:

1The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1988.
2Ibid.

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