The Community College of Philadelphia marked the 50th anniversary
of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the opening of
an exhibit illustrating the life of Gilroy Roberts, the artist who
designed and engraved the obverse of the Kennedy half dollar.
The Nov. 22 activities at the college included a Day of
Following the brief ceremony, the 1,000-square-foot Gilroy Roberts
Gallery opened to the public in the Rotunda of the facility at 1700
Spring Garden St. that once served as the third Philadelphia Mint. The
gallery houses the new exhibit, titled “Gilroy Roberts: Mastering the Craft.”
The third Philadelphia Mint struck coins from its opening in 1901
until the fourth Philadelphia Mint opened in 1969 at Fifth and Arch streets.
The Community College of Philadelphia acquired the third
Philadelphia Mint structure in 1973.
The third Philadelphia Mint struck hundreds of millions of the
1964 Kennedy silver half dollars.
Each visitor to the gallery on Nov. 22 received a card inscribed
with Kennedy’s 1961 famous inaugural quote: “Ask not what your country
can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Guests were invited to write down how they intend to respond in
2013 to Kennedy’s call to action.
The remembrance pledges will be placed on a wall and later added
to the college’s historic archives, according to college officials.
$1.02 million gift
The Gilroy Roberts exhibit was made possible by the Gilroy and
Lillian P. Roberts Foundation’s $1.02 million gift to the Community
College of Philadelphia in 2012.
Roberts served as the ninth chief engraver of the United States
Mint from 1948 until 1964, when he left to direct the engraving
department of the fledgling Franklin Mint.
For many collectors, perhaps, Roberts’ best known works are his
portraits of Kennedy.
Gilroy Roberts created the Kennedy portrait that appears on the
obverse of a medal from the U.S. Mint’s Presidential medal series.
That same portrait was adopted, with modifications, for use on the
obverse of the Kennedy half dollar.
The portrait was paired on the half dollar with Assistant Mint
Engraver Frank Gasparro’s treatment of the presidential seal that
Gasparro had created for the reverse of the same Kennedy presidential medal.
Intended as a memorial to the assassinated president, the half
dollar was authorized by Congress just over a month after his Nov. 22,
Use of Roberts’ existing medallic portrait of Kennedy and
Gasparro’s accompanying medal reverse accommodated the quick
preparation of models, hubs and dies.
Striking of the new coins began in January 1964; the coins first
entered circulation the following month.
Gasparro succeeded Roberts as chief engraver when Gasparro was
appointed to the post Feb. 11, 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The interactive exhibit in the Gilroy Roberts Gallery at the
Community College of Philadelphia includes sculpturing tools, among
them some homemade items, in addition to drawings, medals and coins.
When the College is open, members of the public can tour the free
exhibit from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
The gallery showcases a diorama replication of Roberts’ artist
studio once located at his Newtown Square, Pa., home.
The gallery features three multimedia components:
➤ The Anatomy of a Coin: An interactive station where visitors
explore the elements of the 1964 Kennedy half dollar and learn
interesting historic facts related to its design.
➤ An introduction to Gilroy Roberts Video Experience: Coin
collectors and Gilroy Roberts admirers can gain insight into the man
and his life by listening to the artist’s own words. Roberts was the
first chief engraver for the U.S. Mint to resign from the position,
rather than die in office.
➤ The Art of Coining Video Experience: Visitors view a short video
depicting the minting of U.S. coins at the third Philadelphia Mint,
followed by a short captioned sideshow of historic images. The circa
1940 video can be seen online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBjD9N1APsw.
Victoria Prizzia, founder/president at Habitheque Inc., in
Philadelphia, served as the exhibit planner, along with Metcalf
Architecture & Design. Two other Philadelphia firms, Greenhouse
Media and Blair Brothers Music, also participated in the exhibit’s development.
The college’s architecture students contributed major design
elements, including the ultraviolet window overlay, imprinted with the
Kennedy half dollar design, that covers circular windows and protects
the artifacts from damage from sunlight.
Before Roberts’ death at age 86 on Jan. 26, 1992, the Gilroy and
Lillian P. Roberts Charitable Foundation arranged for the American
Numismatic Association to receive on permanent loan for extended
exhibit a re-creation of his studio containing personal sculpturing
and related items. A series of traveling exhibits also were created
using items from Roberts’ collection.
The Roberts exhibit at the ANA was dedicated on the opening day of
the ANA Summer Seminar in July 1991. The ANA exhibit replicated what
Roberts’ basement office and studio looked like at the time of his death.
The exhibit was taken down in late 2000 or early 2001 while ANA
headquarters underwent extensive renovations, and was never reassembled.
Several years later, the Roberts items, with the intervention of
the Roberts Foundation, were moved from the ANA to storage at Temple
University with the intention of being displayed in a gallery at the
university’s Tyler School of Art. Despite an initial gift of $500,000
to Temple to support the exhibit, the promised space was never
incorporated in the art school’s design.
In 2011, the Roberts Foundation sought and received the return of
the $500,000 gift, for eventual placement with the Community College
of Philadelphia. ■