Mural Fight

The ghost of William McMullen was feeling it last night. Fighting. Irrational. A little territorial.

Bella Vista residents came out in force to oppose the construction of a single family house at Ninth and Bainbridge, the site of David Guinn’s well-loved 2001 mural “Autumn (a.k.a Your House in the Forest)” and once the site of McMullen’s tavern, where the alderman-cum-city councilman made deals and protected his turf.

Fittingly I suppose, Monday was the 140th anniversary of McMullen’s ordering the election day assassination of African-American leader Octavius Catto, in a failed attempt to reduce black influence on the vote. McMullen’s Democrats lost that day, but from Ninth and Bainbridge he lorded over the neighborhood for three more decades.

Octavius Catto

Last night, neighbors were just about as hospitable to David Orphanides, a lawyer representing a builder hoping to build a spec house on their beloved turf. The house is a suburban architect’s typically crass attempt to imitate the urban vernacular. The bay windows exaggerated and roofed in asphalt shingles, the brick too dark, the cornice too small, the stoop something out of 1910 Chicago. Too much Al Capone, too little McMullen, I suppose. (McMullen’s killer Frank Kelly escaped to Chicago after killing Catto.)

The neighbors wanted none of it. They argued nonsensically about losing open space (the lot currently holds nine off-street parking spaces), about a hardship to the renters of the spaces, about needing the house to “fit in,” a ridiculous claim in a neighborhood of eclectic architectural style and form. Bella Vista ain’t Society Hill but you would have thought it was last night.

RHC Design, LLC

I was struck by the architectural conservatism in the room, a conservatism that felt elitist and hostile at times. And clearly no one has made a cogent argument to neighborhood groups like this one that contemporary architecture has value in a “traditional” neighborhood. Least of all this developer, whose architect is working from Looney Tunes.

And yet the neighbors made a strong and at times emotional case to save the mural, one of Guinn’s set of four seasons. If contemporary architecture doesn’t capture the mood of Bella Vista, Guinn’s pixelated, impressionist scenes do. “‘Autumn,'” said Amy Johnson of the Mural Arts Program, “is the spirit of the neighborhood.” Guinn spoke about his connection to the work and to the family that commissioned it. “It’s a big loss,” he said, “for me its one of the most beautiful murals in this city of murals.”

McMullen-like, the neighbors persevered, coming down on a plan to possibly purchase the lot themselves. If not, several nearby sites were identified and Guinn agreed to repaint the mural, should funding be assembled.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



3 Comments


  1. I said before when people were up in arms about covering the Frank Sinatra Mural on South Broad and I will say it again–Murals and the Mural Art Program were instituted to beautify blight, not to prevent development. Were the house being built on an actual green space I might feel differently but this is paint on the side of a building. If murals are going to keep us from building then I’d prefer we stop painting them and spend the time planting parks or building something great.

  2. @Eli. Agreed. Maybe not NIMBYism at its worst, but pretty darn bad.

  3. I feared that this would happen one day… murals that become so entrenched that they keep the empty lots next to them empty. People seem to forget that the murals can be repainted somewhere else… mural arts has done it before.

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