Henry Martin's mural at 39th and Chestnut sts. depicts, among other long-gone buildings, the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church.
There's a 50-foot-high mural at the corner of 39th and Chestnut. The mural depicts six buildings in a dreamlike state of suspension, neither lights within nor people without. It has a quote on it from Konrad Smigielski: "A city without old buildings is like a person without a memory." Artist Henry Martin finished the mural--which recalls six buildings that used to stand in the neighborhood--last summer. Martin says the quote, along with pictures of buildings to be commemorated, was provided by University City District (UCD) Director of Capital Programs and Planning Eric Goldstein.
The mural was funded by an anonymous donor and sponsored by the UCD through the city's Mural Arts Program. But when the scaffolding came down, objections went up. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania (the executive vice president of Penn is the chairman of the board of directors of the UCD) tried to persuade Martin to repaint the very mural he had spent months working on.
Ask Allison Kelsey, director of marketing and public information for the University City District, about UCD murals, and she'll tell you about three great murals that will be dedicated soon, the first on April 5.
But what about the unsigned mural at 39th and Chestnut? "Oh, that one. It's kinda finished, but there's more we'd like to see happen with it."
From what many people say, what the UCD would really like is for the mural, like the buildings it depicts, to disappear.
How could such a huge and public misunderstanding occur? Maybe it's best to start from the beginning.
The UCD receives an anonymous donation and initiates a mural commemorating some old buildings that used to stand in its neighborhood. The artist produces sketches and sheperds them through the usual process by which the Mural Arts Program has put up more than 1,800 murals in Philadelphia. The sketches are approved, including the quote from Konrad Smigielski, by the UCD, the property owner and community members.
The artist finishes the work in July and the scaffolding comes down. Now, instead of setting the date for the mural dedication as usual, complaints are voiced.
The UCD asks Martin to paint over the mural, Martin says. He tells them he'll do it for twice his initial fee. "For another $6,000 I don't get another mural in my portfolio--I have to erase one I've already done. This isn't house painting. Art isn't like other commodities."
After the UCD balks, Martin offers to go over a checklist of UCD's issues with the mural and fix them. He gets no response. Martin's final offer is to hold a dedication ceremony at which he'll sign the mural and paint over the quote from Smigielski.
Once again, he says, he gets no reply.
"A city without old buildings is like a person without a what?"
The UCD's Goldstein says he doesn't have any idea who Konrad Smigielski is. He says the quotes were given to him by the anonymous donor, and that's all he knows.
Both online searches and reference at the Philadelphia Free Library turn up scarce evidence of Konrad Smigielski's existence. It's as though his memory remains with us, much like the six buildings, mainly on the wall at 39th and Chestnut.
But Konrad Smigielski is not what's keeping the University of Pennsylvania from embracing this mural. It's that the buildings themselves have far more disquieting connotations.
So what are those buildings floating so ghostlike over the Boston Market parking lot?
Some were Penn buildings to begin with, and some were rowhouses in the neighborhood, but the one on the lower left with the big red door was the great stone Walnut Street Presbytarian Church. For more than 100 years the majestic church reigned over the 3900 block of Walnut. The thousand-strong congregation filed in through the main doors over the ground now occupied by a one-story strip mall.
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Summer Guide 2013