Sidney Fiske Kimball (he dropped ‘Sidney’ early in his professional career) was born in Newton, Massachusetts on December 8th, 1888. His parents were Edwin Fiske Kimball and Ellen Ripley; his father taught, and later was head master, at various public schools in the Boston suburbs. Fiske attended Harvard University, receiving his Bachelors degree from the Architecture School in 1909 and his Master of Architecture in 1912. The curriculum emphasized formal elements of design based on the history of buildings and the built environment. It was based directly on the model provided by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The result, according to Kimball, was that Harvard students, “tended to graduate into teaching, writing and editing rather than practice.” His career, in fact, included notable contributions in teaching, writing, editing, and practice.
In the Fall of 1912 Fiske joined the architecture faculty at the University of Illinois. There he met Marie Goebel, daughter of professor Julius Goebel. They were married on June 7th, 1913. In the Fall of 1913 the Kimballs moved to Ann Arbor where Fiske became an instructor at the University of Michigan Architecture School. This was a busy and productive period for him: He earned his Ph.D. in Fine Arts from the University, he produced, Thomas Jefferson Architect (1916), and A History of Architecture (1918). His tenure at Michigan (1913-1919) was interrupted by several extended research leaves and led to his appointment, in the Spring of 1919, to head the Department of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia.
During Kimball’s brief tenure at the University of Virginia (1919-1923) he presented a series of lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art resulting in Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (1922). In the summer of 1923 Fiske and Marie moved to New York City where he created the graduate program at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Two years after arriving in New York he was appointed Director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (later Philadelphia Museum of Art), a position he retained until shortly before his death in 1955.
The first decade of Kimball’s directorship was very productive with the completion of the massive new Museum building, installation of works in an art historical sequence to facilitate instruction, finishing of the interior with authentic architectural “period rooms,” and the cultivation of public funding sources. Kimball’s notorious personality (“bullish,” “brusque,” “profane”) in no way inhibited his success in cultivating private donors: he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars prior to the Crash in late 1929, and even during the 1930s he received significant monetary gifts.
During the mid 1930s Fiske was busy desiging and supervising construction of a home for himself and Marie on 100 wooded acres North of Charlottesville.
The Pennsylvania Museum of Art changed its name in the late 1930s to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At this time the Museum constituted a constellation of cultural agencies and architectural landmarks including: the central museum building, Memorial Hall (a structure remaining from the 1876 Centennial Exposition), the Rodin Museum, and a string of 17th and 18th century houses in Fairmount Park (called the Museum’s “colonial chain”), including Lemon Hill, Mount Pleasant, Cedar Grove, and Letitia Street House.
Throughout his career Kimball was a voracious reader and expansive researcher resulting in a massive list of publications.
A year after masterminding the “Jubilee Celebration,” of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 75th anniversary in1950, Fiske Kimball was presented with the city of Philadelphia’s prestigious Bok Award.
Carl Zigrosser, who joined the Museum staff as curator of prints and drawings in 1941 and remained there until after Fiske Kimball’s retirement, wrote the following portrait of Kimball in aWorld of Art and Museums (1975): “Fiske Kimball had a commanding, almost formidable, physical presence, a height of over six feet, with ample girth, created, as he used to say, by his wife’s Marie’s good cooking. There was a touch of gaucherie in the movement of his bulk; he often reminded one of a bull in a china shop. His most formidable feature, however, was his cannonball head with its roundness emphasized by the shortness of his haircut. From it emanated persuasive ideas and an undeviating purpose. He was a titan of directed energy. The direction came from his sense of dedication to the Museum.”