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Side Trip Along the Main Line

In March 1823 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a charter for the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the state's first railroad, linking Philadelphia to Columbia via Lancaster. After the Civil War, genteel suburbs sprang up around the stations. The gracious estates with endless lawns, debutante balls, and cricket clubs were the province of wealthy families.

The main attraction of the Main Line, until last summer, was the Barnes Foundation, the eccentrically arranged art collection of Albert C. Barnes. Renoirs (181), Cézannes (69, including his Card Players), Matisses (59), and masterpieces by Van Gogh, Degas, Seurat, Picasso, Gauguin, Tintoretto, Modiglianni, Soutine, and others were wallpapered floor-to-ceiling alongside household tools, Amish chests, and New Mexican folk icons. Barnes' tastes, particularly for impressionists, were frowned upon by the establishment at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the time, but of course now it is the envy of the art world. And, despite his will dictating otherwise, the art establishment won, and the new Barnes is scheduled to open in 2012 on the Ben Franklin Parkway, just down the road from the Art Museum itself. It's still a touchy subject for Main Liners, some of whom have signs on their lawns reading "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." The original still exists as an educational and horticultural institution, but the only way to see the Barnes as it was now is through the documentary on the controversy, The Art of the Steal.

Bryn Mawr College. The 1939 film Philadelphia Story, a depiction of Main Line society life, starred Katharine Hepburn, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the first college for women that offered B.A. degrees. Founded in 1885 and modeled after Cambridge and Oxford colleges, Bryn Mawr introduced the "collegiate Gothic" style of architecture to the United States. 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA, 19010. 610/526–6520. www.brynmawr.edu.

Barnes Foundation. Nearly sequestered from public view for a century in Lower Merrion, PA, this legendary collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces made world headlines when it relocated to this spectacular new home in May 2012. While the statistics are impressive—81 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 7 Van Goghs, 6 Seurats (and many more)—almost more inspiring is this soaring marble and glass museum. Largely thanks to a brilliant modernist setting, the greatness of this collection of art is only now revealed, due to a new design that lends a sense of intimacy between viewer and object, while at the same time increasing one's appreciation of capital-A art.

The collection was amassed (in the 1920s and 1930s) thanks to the millions Dr. Barnes made in pharmaceuticals. As a theorist, he wanted to help people "see as an artist saw" and to do this, he created for each gallery wall an "ensemble" of mirror-like symmetry: a Matisse could hang side-by-side with a Goya, above an African sculpture, and below a Old Master sketch and a French tin shoe-buckle. As his will decreed that nothing could be changed, everything had to be transported—lock, stock, and Modigliani—to this new showcase.

Warmed by walls of tawny-colored Negev sandstone, centered around an enormous "Light Court"—the perfect place for gallery-goers to reflect on art—and entered through a narrow "mood tube" of reflecting pools and tall trees, the design of architects Tod Williams and Billy Tsien may be minimalist in style but remains mellow in impact. Inside, an interior garden, art library, restaurant, two classrooms, and café are winningly used as buffer zones to the rooms hung with the core collection.

Highlights include some of the most fabled paintings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern art, including Cézanne's The Card Players, Georges Seurat's Models, Van Gogh's Postman Roulin, Monet's Studio Boat, Matisse's Joy of Life and La Danse mural, Renoir's The Artist's Family, and Picasso's Acrobat and Young Harlequin. Thanks to a new lighting system, the art looks so fresh that it seems the artists had just put down their palettes. It is safe to say that most museum-goers will find this new Barnes Foundation a work of art in itself. For information about the museum's packed calendar of classes, lectures, and concerts, see the website. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Fairmount, Philadelphia, PA, 19130. 215/278–7000. www.barnesfoundation.org. $18. Wed.–Thurs., Sat.–Mon., 9:30 am–6 pm, Fri. 9:30 am–10 pm. Closed Tues.

Chanticleer. At this 35-acre pleasure garden circling a country estate even the old tennis court has been transformed into a garden. If you enjoy flowers and paths, this is a great stop. It's lavish, but its over-the-top opulence is part of what makes it so enjoyable. 786 Church Rd., Wayne, PA, 19087. 610/687–4163. www.chanticleergarden.org. $10. Apr.–Oct., Wed.–Sun. 10–5; May–Labor Day, Wed.–Thurs. and weekends 10–5, Fri. 10–8.

Updated: 08-2013

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