On April 21 the Philadelphia Zoning Board (ZBA) will hear testimony on whether to grant three building code variances that would permit Shimi Zakin of Atrium Design Group to build a 74-unit apartment house on top of the existing Painted Bride Art Center building at 230 Vine Street in Old City. If the ZBA grants the three variances–one for height, another for slightly exceeding density, and a third to grandfather in the building’s existing footprint–Philadelphia will get a nice 21st century addition to its 350-year architectural history and preserve artist Isaiah Zagar’s iconoclastic artwork. If the ZBA denies the variances, Zakin will build 16 luxury townhomes on the land, and the 7,000 square foot mural will be obliterated.
Since 2017, the fate of the Painted Bride building, and Zagar’s mosaic mural festooning its facade from sidewalk to roofline, have been in play. The drama unfolding in the local courts and City agencies is quintessentially a Philadelphia story–one of passion and perspectives. The Painted Bride’s board of directors wants to sell the building for the highest price and move on. The neighbors want to maintain the zoning code and their peaceful neighborhood existence. They can take or leave the mural. Friends of Zagar and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, with its mission to “preserve, interpret, and provide access to the artist’s unique mosaic art environment and his public murals,” are bent on preserving the Painted Bride mural. Period. And the art, design, and architecture community at large are petitioning on behalf of the developer’s adaptive reuse solution and its addition to the architectural fabric of Philadelphia.
Supporters of Zagar’s work have been battling to legally preserve and protect the Painted Bride mural for years now. Both the Philadelphia courts and the Philadelphia Historical Commission threw out their pleas. Since 2018, various developers, area businesses, and a theatre company have pitched reuse proposals. Some plans incorporated the mural. Others destroyed it. Now, developer and architect Shimi Zakin is ready and willing to purchase the property and build before the city’s tax abatement laws change next year. His plans for 16 luxury townhouses have passed through City approvals. Looking to his past projects in Philly, the planned townhouses would undoubtedly be a handsome, if pricey, addition to the neighborhood. By default, the mosaic mural would be demolished. “If I wasn’t wearing both hats, architect and developer, and I put developer before architect, I would use the zoning permit I have in my hand,” Zakin says.
Because Zakin is an architect, first and foremost, Philadelphia is the better for his contributions: 7Inspire on Walnut Street in Old City, Laurel Court in Northern Liberties, and NOVO on 17th and Wood Streets in Franklintown. All are small-scale luxury residential developments that are sensitive to their historic surroundings without mimicking them, employing bold materials that make his projects squarely modern, while respecting the past. Arguably his crowning jewel is 1914 Rittenhouse Square, the former Henry McIlhenney estate built in 1858, a vast, private residence that melds the original facade with 21st century architectural gestures. Zakin trades on his reputation. “The architecture and design communities are small here. That’s why we want to do such ambitious projects,” he said.
Persuaded by the pro-Zagar mural faction spearheaded by Emily Smith, executive director of the Magic Gardens, Zakin went back to two staff architects, Snežana Litvinović and Angeline Focht, to reimagine a way to save the Painted Bride mural, while at the same time turning a company profit. The new proposal, dubbed The Groom, calls for a seven-story, 85-foot apartment building with five new floors floating above the original two-story bunker. All of the existing entrances would be preserved along with the window plan. Studios, one bedrooms, and two bedroom rentals would fill the floors above the proposed lobby, public art gallery, and garage. The new exterior employs an aluminum cladding system that seamlessly interlocks to create a novel facade, at once very modern, while echoing the brick patterning of surrounding buildings. A lighting plan is being developed for the exterior that would highlight and celebrate the mural.
The Groom design takes cues from New York City’s New Museum. It is unapologetically bold, contemporary, and in keeping with the existing industrial neighborhood structures. Together with the folksy mosaic mural, the new building becomes a modernist sculpture–a marriage of the past and the present, art and commerce, hand-wrought and machine-made. Atrium’s architectural plan echoes the form of surrounding 19th century industrial buildings that line the streets of Old City, while remaining sensitive to Philadelphia planning concerns for light, public walkways, density, and housing needs. The design makes both aesthetic and contextual sense for Old City and Philadelphia, at large.
And yet, Franklin Bridge North Neighbors Association (FBNNA) voted 17-7 to oppose the zoning variances. FBNCA is part of Old City, but not the area rich with galleries, restaurants, and specialty shops. Wedged between the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Vine Street Expressway to the south and north, and between I-95 and 6th street east to west, this urban slice is a distinct, largely residential enclave with its own separate civic association. According to Gary Vernick, a lifelong resident there and co-chair of the FBNNA Zoning & Development Committee, the organization has no beef with Zakin’s proposed design and would not oppose the proposal if the developer stayed within the zoning code. Their issues lie with who is taking responsibility for what.
“We lived through the collapse of the National Building,” says Vernick, referring to the historically registered National Products building at 121 North 2nd Street which endured years of legal battles and fell into such disrepair that the building was ultimately demolished. “How will they guarantee that the mosaic will continue to stand through construction?,” he asked. For the past several years a black veil has draped over the exterior implying that the Zagar facade is falling down and in dangerous straits. Among the mosaic supporters there is a sense that the Painted Bride organization commissioned the shroud more for affect more than safety concerns. In the initial battle to sell the building, insinuating that the building facade is unstable might have helped make the parcel an easier sell. “There’s a misconception about the state of the mural,” said Smith, the Magic Gardens’ executive director. Three preservationists trained in conserving Zagar murals and Zagar himself spent two weeks examining in detail the Bride mosaic, she said. “We found that 70 percent is intact and stable. About 15 percent needs some restoration and about 10 to 15 percent need greater attention.” As with anything exposed constantly to nature, deterioration happens. “Like any facade in a typical historic preservation effort, special engineering attention and extra care needs to be taken,” Smith said.
Vernick questions why the Magic Gardens, rather than the property owner, are taking responsibility for the mosaic mural. The answer probably lies in the mosaic technique itself. In international art circles, Zagar’s mosaic-making is known as the “Zagar Method,” developed over years through trial-and-error. His rambling loose patterns incorporate all manner of objects without concern for longterm durability. Shards of glass and mirror, Mexican pottery, bits and pieces of ceramics representing birds, butterflies, flowers, human figures, his own hand-painted tiles, and finished off with brightly-colored cement grout. Monumental in scale and exuberant in nature, Zagar reinvents ordinary urban buildings. “Isaiah doesn’t use hyper-specific outdoor materials,” Smith noted.
Consulting engineers evaluated the state of both the mural and the structure. “The building itself is failing.” said Smith. “Water has gotten behind the stucco where the mosaic is affixed along Bodine Street.” The Atrium plan would remove the existing roof, abut the new building to the standing first floor walls, and then raise the additional floors up without touching the current structure. Once done, the problematic sections of the mural will be removed and repaired as needed. “The new design calls for a second floor overhang that will protect the mosaic facade going forward,” Smith added.
Still, the neighbors ask why Zakin can’t design something that would adhere to the existing zoning code? Is this the typical Philadelphia story of another greedy developer imposing his or her financial needs on the neighborhood underdogs simply because they can get away with it? To that question, Zakin retorted, “If it were 99 percent possible, I would see the one percent and do that. But it is 110 percent impossible.” Preserving the existing envelope has real costs, but according to his math, not to mention marketing acumen, the expense would be worth it. Among other things, the neighbors see the addition of 100 to 200 new residents to the area as a stressor to the already difficult area parking issue. Never mind that Zakin is providing for a multi-car garage and car share spots in accordance with zoning. But neighbors have a point. Traffic flow from the 2nd and Callowhill Streets off-ramp of I-95 is a flash point for the area. How much added car activity can the current traffic pattern accommodate? That is a concern, but not of the ZBA.
FBNNA is also anxious about what zoning variances could mean to future development. Granting The Groom’s variances could set a precedence for future rulings, they say. Currently, there are several surface parking lots within their borders ripe for new construction, including a former Gulf gas station lot just a half block down from the Painted Bride on 2nd Street. The neighbors only need to glance over to 205 Race Street where the Bridge on Race Apartments rise, with its 18-stories and 146-units, to fuel their anxieties. Given the vagaries of Philadelphia politics and land development, there is a chance a high-rise could be built. But the newly designed Groom building wouldn’t be the culprit. An added 20 feet to the allowable 65-foot cap keeps the proposed building in scale with its early 20th century neighbors that were grandfathered in: the six-story Chocolate Works at 231 North 3rd Street and seven- story Bridgeview Place Condos at 315 New Street.
FBNNA suggested a design compromise that would maintain the front and back mosaic, but eliminate the side murals so that the developer could add more rental units on the lower floors. Both the Magic Gardens folks and Zakin said no deal. Perhaps those neighbors are not fully weighing the value of design, art, preservation, or their cultural implications. In a speech in the House of Commons on October 28, 1944, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The meaning of the quote is that, first, a building is a result of the design of the architect’s ideas, but as it exists over time the people who live and work in it take the quality of the buildings they live in.
Would editing the Painted Bride’s expansive covering be such a big loss? Over 220 public Zagar mosaics are located throughout Philadelphia, with 28 Zagar mosaics located elsewhere in the world, including Arizona, Hawaii, New York, California, Kansas, Mexico, Chile, and India. “The Bride is the largest public mosaic Isaiah has ever done,” Smith said. “It’s the first one incorporating words, and it tells the story of the arts center, the artists involved, the neighborhood, the history of this part of Old City. It includes such gems as a small tile painted with a portrait of Patsy Ratchet, artist Warren Muller’s cross-dressing alter ego, as well as a brief history of the organization composed in tile: “In 1970 the Painted Bride opened in an old wedding dress shop on South Street. In 1984 the Bride moved to a permanent residence 230 Vine Street.”
Zagar and a troop of local artists and craftspeople worked on the Painted Bride facade as a commissioned gift for over eight years. An historic designation nomination for the mural states that “the mosaic façade of 230-36 Vine Street is one of artist Isaiah Zagar’s defining works representing a pivotal moment in Zagar’s artistic development. The exterior facade is artist’s first use of his innovative ‘total embellishment’ style—mosaics that encompass a building’s exterior walls from street to roofline. The vibrant mosaic façade is inextricably linked to history of the Painted Bride and is a singular visual feature of the Old City arts district.”
Some people don’t call Zagar’s work art. An established art administrator who prefers to remain anonymous calls the work nothing more than wallpaper. Others have a more crass opinion equating what Zagar does to a dog relieving himself here, there, and everywhere. Still, the larger art community begs to differ. Zagar has been awarded numerous national and international commissions, residencies, and grants for his work, including a Pew Charitable Trust award as well as a National Endowment for the Arts award. His works are included in the permanent collections including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The Brandywine River Museum of Art, and the Museo de Art Contemporáneo de San Luis Potosí, Mexico. In 2015, the Society of American Mosaic Artists featured Zagar as the guest of honor and the keynote speaker with the Painted Bride being a featured notable work.
Zagar’s works tell the stories of Philadelphia: its people, places, culture, values. The Painted Bride’s north facade incorporates tiles that Zagar made copying the entirety of 1978 Philadelphia Bulletin article detailing the life of South Street merchant Abe Kravitz, a key member of that street’s renaissance. The finished mosaic includes grammatical and spelling errors due to Zagar’s dyslexia. Then there are the phrases “Art is the center of the real world” and “Philadelphia is the center of the art world” featured prominently in most of Zagar’s artworks, including on the southern wall of the Painted Bride. According to a statement from the Magic Gardens, “Zagar began using these phrases in the 1970s when he was rejected from numerous New York galleries. Instead of thinking of New York as the only art world that mattered, the artist decided he wanted to work to make Philadelphia become the center of the art.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” begins Joan Didion’s legendary essay collection The White Album, a literary mosaic illuminating subjects ranging from the Charles Manson cult to the Black Panthers, from painter Georgia O’Keefe to the author’s own struggles with depression and anxiety in the late 1960s. The corollary might be that we are the stories we tell, both to ourselves and each other. Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It exists (and existed) to entertain, to inform, and to promulgate cultural traditions and values.
Storytelling is fundamental to being human. From the Lascaux cave paintings to African rock paintings, Persian illuminated manuscripts to the Sistine Chapel, Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people. Through stories, we share passions, fears, sadness, hardships, and joys, and we find common ground with other people so that we can connect and communicate with them. Stories are universal, conveying meaning and purpose that help us understand ourselves better and find commonality with others.
Stories help us build empathy, respect, and appreciation for other cultures, and can promote a positive attitude to people from different lands, races and religions. Storytelling influences our social behavior, and our ability to build connections. Indian film director, actor, and producer, Shekhar Kapoor goes a step further. “The stories we tell ourselves are the stories that define the potentialities of our existence,” he says “Everyone has a story, and therefore we exist. If we do not create the stories, we probably would go mad.”
What do we lose if we allow the Painted Bride mosaic mural to be torn down? Simply ourselves.