As the author of Streets Dept, a popular blog covering street art in Philly, Conrad Benner spends a lot of time observing and thinking about the way buildings and other structures can be visually repurposed. It was with that mindset that, while looking up at the back of the PSFS building on 12th and Market streets, he began to imagine what it might look like adorned with the work of a local artist rather than the black brick facade that has occupied that space since the skyscraper was erected in 1932. On Oct. 4, he mused aloud to his Twitter followers what he thought would be an uncontroversial notion: Why not turn the blank back wall of the PSFS building into a mural?
Benner's tweet caught the attention of the city's Mural Arts Program, which responded favorably to the idea from its official Twitter account. From there, the admittedly incomplete idea morphed into something a bit more formal, and a few days later, an online petition went live. Before long, the local media started chiming in, and the initial optimism of the proposal gave way—in quintessentially Philly fashion—to a spirited, sometimes nasty war of words across social networks, blogs and comment threads. It’s a debate that rages right at the complex intersection of art, architecture, history and the future of Philadelphia's beloved skyline.
For Benner, who was born and raised in Fishtown, the idea was partially fueled by that intense, almost defensive Philly pride that many natives have: We’ll soak up any recognition we can get that doesn't involve blood-spattered crime scenes or rogue cops. "There's just some real great energy going on in this city," he says. "We're really good at commemorating our history, but we need to start looking at ways that we can be the first at things."
His idea came at a receptive time: Woven throughout the cross-disciplinary Design Philadelphia festival earlier this month was a subtext envisioning Philly's future as a more vibrant, sustainable city, focusing on a strong arts scene, more entrepreneurship and the reclaiming of public space. One way to get some positive publicity for the city, Benner argues, would be to unveil the nation's largest mural. It's a record currently held by Omaha, Neb., easily breakable with the 70-feet-by-491-feet space on the PSFS building. "I just think it would be a really cool statement for the city to say, 'We're going to paint the largest mural in America right here.'"
Not everyone shares his excitement. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron was among the first to express disapproval. "It's a really, really important building," she says. "Would you put a wrap around Independence Hall? Around City Hall?"
While Mural Arts is proud to tout Philadelphia as the public-mural capital of the world, Saffron thinks it's overkill, likening the city's 3,000 murals to intrusive advertising and Soviet propaganda—a cheap distraction from our urban woes, rather than a solution for them. And beyond that, she says, the PSFS building doesn't fit with Mural Arts' original mission. "This building is not blighted," she says. "It's not a problem. It's not a blank wall. It's not undecorated."
Designed by William Lescaze and George Howe for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, the PSFS building was indeed pioneering: the first in the country to employ the International style of architecture, a forward-thinking jewel of modern urban design. The skyscraper, only the second in the U.S. to be air-conditioned, functioned as the bank's headquarters for almost 60 years before PSFS was sold to Mellon Bank. Long considered a national treasure, especially in architecture circles, the building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Since then, any changes to its appearance have had to be reviewed by a number of bodies, including the Philadelphia HistoricalCommission and the National Park Service. By the early 1990s, it stood mostly vacant before a deal was struck to turn it into a Loews hotel, a project that was completed just in time for the 2000 Republican National Convention.
It's not just historic preservation panels and architecture buffs who are protective of the building. When PSFS shut down in 1990, the iconic neon sign bearing the defunct bank's initials was turned off. People freaked out. The 27-foot-tall letters were quickly relit, and what is arguably our skyline's most distinctive feature has been illuminated since.
The rules that govern how the Philadelphia Historical Commission deals with proposed murals on historic buildings are pretty clear. Public art of this type "shall not be placed directly upon historic fabric" or "in a manner that obscures historic fabric." Painting directly on the building's exterior is, thus, out of the question—and even a temporary installation would likely be a hard sell.
"There's not really much point in having this conversation," says Jon Farnham, the PHC's executive director. "Given the Historical Commission's jurisdiction over this building, it wouldn't meet historic preservation standards and, I think, would not be approved." Farnham concedes that a temporary, nondestructive mural on the PSFS building—such as one painted on parachute cloth and hung on the building—would have a better chance at being approved, especially if the proposed mural somehow paid homage to the building's own history. Even then, he doesn't seem to think Benner and his supporters should hold their breath.
Still, Benner hasn't lost hope. He knows his proposal is light on details so far—that's because, in the spirit of the social-media world in which he works during the day, he wanted to crowdsource the idea, building support organically before bringing it into official channels. That collaborative spirit may have backfired somewhat, allowing his detractors more room to ridicule the scheme as shortsighted. Before the discussion ever had a chance to drill down into nuance and specifics, the digital mud-slinging had begun, with some online commenters deriding the idea of "hipster dipshits" defacing a historical building. "I'm realistic," Benner says. "If people really don't want to do this, I'll move on." But as long as there might still be a shot at Philly scoring another superlative title—particularly an artistic one—he's going to stay excited.
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