When mosaic mural artist Isaiah Zagar shared the news that his 100 foot piece on the north-facing wall of Society Hill Playhouse would be demolished for new residential construction with Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia Magic Gardens, he had tears in his eyes. The Garden of Earthly Delights guides pedestrians through a serene, hidden pathway connecting 8th and S. Franklin Streets with Bradford Alley between Lombard and Rodman with a long fragmented wave of playful iconographic delirium suspended in broken tile. Zagar led a community art project to install the mosaic in 2011 over the course of a few monthly workshops with 30 students contributing to the piece. Horsham-based development company Toll Brothers acquired the Playhouse in 2015. Despite community opposition, the company’s current plans are to raze the building for 20 apartments priced at $500,000 to $1 million per unit.
Originally named Garrick Hall, the Playhouse was built in 1898 to serve as civic space for Jewish and Italian immigrants. Political rallies and protests were held there, as well as concerts and celebrations and theater. Then, in the 1960s, at a time when Philadelphia staged only traveling Broadway and tired hits, directors and actors launched the Society Hill Playhouse, to produce avant-garde productions, launching the city’s theater revival. The Playhouse and the sizable Zagar mosaic are the latest casualties of a booming real estate market riding roughshod through South Philadelphia. Smith is hosting a forum at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on March 3 to discuss public artwork at risk in the South Street area and collectively explore what measures the community can take to safeguard murals from future real estate development.
In a city internationally renowned for its murals, clear dialogue on the issue of public art preservation tends to grow murky when it comes to outdoor paintings, street art, and non-commissioned neighborhood works. According to the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, developers must give an artist 90 days notice that a mural is slated for demolition. However, property rights often go unchallenged and neighbors not actively engaged in community zoning meetings are generally unaware that a mural is at risk until demolition is well underway. A void in consideration and communication on the part of the developer often leads to confusion and animosity among residents.
“What is most upsetting for me, and what I want to challenge, is the lack of conversation between the community and developers when public work is at risk,” says Smith. “I’m not opposed to development and I understand it is a vital aspect of our city’s growth, but I am opposed to public artwork coming down with no talk about saving the work or commissioning new work.”
Zagar, reacting to the loss of the Playhouse mosaic, wrote in a letter before leaving to work on a mosaic project in Mexico, “Art creates a state of mind and body that is not always visible to us. And when that is destroyed by neglect or malfeasance or just profit motive, it chips away at our humanity and what makes our culture bright.”
It’s a complicated issue, and one that Jane Golden, founder and executive director of the Mural Arts Program, says must be approached with a grain of salt. “On one hand, we never want to stand in the way of economic development. Cities are dynamic, fluid, ever changing, and we want to respect that,” says Golden. “On the other hand, the murals of this city–the murals, the mosaics, the sculptures–are city assets. They have come, over the years, to represent our lives, hopes, struggles, triumphs, fears, aspirations.”
Since 1983, the Mural Arts Program has created almost 4,000 works of public art, what Golden calls an “autobiography of our city.” Murals indeed often become a point of neighborhood pride and part of the cultural fabric of a community, much like the widely adored Dr. J mural at 1219 Ridge Avenue and the John Coltrane mural at 32nd and Diamond that was demolished by Pennrose Development in 2014. Many become meaningful landmarks etched into every day memory. As such, there is an unspoken assumption among residents that a mural will remain a permanent public work of art. When a mural is demolished or covered by new construction resentment in the community often follows. “There is all too often no reaching out to the community, to Mural Arts, to the artist, and people do get angry, sad, and frustrated,” says Golden. “They feel that something important has been taken away from them.”
With scarce dialogue among the artists, residents, and developers, the destruction of a mural is often perceived an imperious encroachment on the neighborhood rather than revitalization and urban growth. “Public art changes lives, and I think it is the most powerful tool we have in transforming our physical and mental landscapes. If you are removing a public work of art you have a responsibility to that community to replace, save, or commission something in its place,” says Smith. “It is a matter of respecting and honoring the residents who have made the neighborhood what it is.”
Golden says a respectful approach by developers can and should be taken to create goodwill and soften animosity between all stakeholders. “We would love to work with developers and others who think about community reinvestment and all that means. We feel that with respect, clear communication, and a sense of balance some of this can be resolved.”
Smith hopes that the meeting on March 3 will elevate the conversation with city government officials and provide a driver for community action to deliver meaningful results. “Having people who can show up to zoning committees or talk with our local representatives is crucial,” says Smith of residents around South Street. “I think we just need to be a part of the conversation.”
A community forum on the protection of public artwork will be held at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, at 6PM, March 3.
Damn, that’s a shame.
Mural Arts has put up over 4,000 murals in its long existence, and I applaud them for that. However, not every mural is a masterpiece. The murals were meant to combat graffiti and to brighten empty lots and blighted areas. I know that this is an unpopular opinion and that i will catch flak for this, but I would rather see a useful building erected on an empty lot even if it means losing a mural. It’s better to cure the problem than to preserve the artistic band-aid that was meant to mask it.
I couldn’t agree more with Bob Skiba above. Not every mural can or should be saved. While I admire a lot of Zagar’s mosaics this one isn’t his best work in my opinion.
Enough of Zagar please. Why is he allowed to muralize EVERY surface in his neighborhood? It makes him more renowned which makes him more money. His newer work is mass produced by folks in his workshops. It does not have the soul and passion of his early work. Glad this one is coming down,he does not need to be subsidized to make more work. Subsidize the artists of the Village of Arts and Humanities if you want beautiful mosaics, different mosaics!
I am in total agreement with Bob, Davis and especially Joan. Every inch of that neighborhood doesn’t need to be Zagar-fied although it does seem to be the goal. It’s become repetitive, meaningless and rather boring.
I love but public are. But the original point of the mural art project was to prevent graffiti. The murals are basically place holders till a lot next to a bare wall can be developed. I am almost always in favor of these murals being covered up, by development. Very few of the murals are worth saving. The Keith Haring comes to mine of one that should be preserved. But not this Isaiah Zagar. If it can be saved and moved, one tile at a time. Then that would be nice. But if not, to bad. What is upsetting to me is that they are destroying the society hill play house.
why not tell us who the developer is?
a mural was ripped down in the 4000 block of barring street with no fanfare
Mural Lives matters!!!
As noted, the Pennrose Company demolished the Tribute to John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. A week ago, the Philadelphia Housing Authority knocked down the Women in Jazz mural, which featured iconic jazz artists like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Mary Lou Williams.
Murals are part of the fabric of a neighborhood. They are civic assets paid for, in part, by taxpayers. Through digital technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Yet, developers are allowed to destroy or block them at will and without financial consequence.
I will join the conversation on March 3rd. The community has to make some noise.
Faye M. Anderson
All That Philly Jazz