The Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, located at 709-721 Catharine Street in South Philadelphia, is a free art school and gallery administered by—although a separate organization from—the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Memorial consists of four buildings linked together: the Sanctuary, the St. Martin's College building, and two three-story row houses, all of which were built in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. These buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places for both historic and architectural merits in 1983.
The Memorial, originally known as the Graphic Sketch Club, was founded by Samuel S. Fleisher in 1898 in the Jewish Union building that then stood at 4th and Bainbridge Streets. In 1915, Mr. Fleisher purchased Saint Martin's College for Indigent Boys to house his expanding Graphic Sketch Club, then the only free art school in the nation. Originally the Episcopal Church of the Evangelists, the Sanctuary next door was purchased by Mr. Fleisher in 1922 and connected to the school building. Both buildings were designed in an Italianate Romanesque Revival style by Louis C. Baker and E. James Dallett of the Philadelphia architecture firm Furness & Evans. Housing a collection of European art from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, the Sanctuary was intended to give the students a place for quiet meditation. Fleisher later acquired the adjacent row of houses for additional classrooms.
Upon his death in 1944, Mr. Fleisher's will directed that the name be changed to the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. The income from his residuary estate was to be used by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the upkeep of the buildings and operation of the programs. Under the Museum's administration, the Memorial offers free classes and low-cost workshops for children and adults in all the visual arts. More than a thousand students per week attend evening and Saturday art classes.
In 1978, Fleisher initiated the Challenge Exhibition, a juried competition for emerging regional artists. The series was critically acclaimed from the start and gave many now well-established artists their first exhibition opportunity. In 1982, the Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned artist Siah Armajani to design the Louis Kahn Lecture Room at Fleisher, conceived as a tribute in memory of the distinguished Philadelphia architect who had once been a student at the school. The Fleisher galleries offer a changing program of exhibitions, and the Sanctuary continues to serve as a retreat as well as a performance space.