Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden, Philadelphia

There is something in us humans that, even in the outdoors – especially in the outdoors – compels us to compartmentalize and limit, contain and reduce, so that we can wrap our infinity-loathing minds around the ungraspable unendingness of the land receding in all directions from us. Good walls make good neighbors … with the rest of creation.

Thus, in larger gardens, one is almost assured in finding, accompanying the open space, one or more garden “rooms” – spaces designed to offer a protective intimacy that nature, even manicured nature, does not afford: controlled environments within created environments. Many such rooms are merely decorative rest stops; some are thematic. Whichever, it is odd how pleased (even relieved) we are to come upon them, and how comfortable we feel when we are in them.

Along Philadelphia’s scenic and winding East River (or, Kelly) Drive, up the road from the Museum of Art, moving north and away from the city and not far past Boathouse Row, are three “rooms” that one, speeding by in a car, can easily miss – collectively, the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden, named for a culture maven who left most of her estate to the Fairmount Park Art Association. This tripartite memorial, according to a marker, is designed to be an “emblematic history of our country.” These three terraces, or mini-plazas, are separated from each other by short distances and circular fountains, and accessible from paths that run either along the Schuylkill or alongside the road.

In each of these terraces are sculptures, and quotes chiseled in stone; there is something very WPA-ish about it all, a pervading style of a time when public art was erected for the common good of all citizens, and was seen as a way to promote and promulgate the civic ideals and ethos. While the Memorial was built in stages, and some of those stages fell within that works-progress federal period, the dedication date given at the Memorial is 1957 (and, on the Art Association’s Web site as 1961); it’s hard to remember, but, in an Eisenhower-era, pre-Watergate world, maybe we all still held those “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” ideas about government and its positive role in our lives, which these Samuel areas propose. It is certainly a bit of history now.

The southernmost terrace, and the larger central terrace, symbolize, another marker states, “incidents in our history: settlement of the seaboard, forming a nation, spanning the continent, welcome to all peoples.” The central was the first built, the south terrace the second, and they are – and especially the central, which has the feel of a propagandistic, quasi-Fascist, monumental rallying plaza – open and expansive. But, like our national history, perhaps too much so, and, though full of art and thought in a hardscape setting, empty and lacking something – something that the non-Puritan, non-manifest destiny soul requires. They are lessons, not conversations.

But that “something,” that resonance, that arslocii sense of placeness, resides in the remaining, and last built, “room” where, the marker tells, “is expressed the inner energies of our national life.” And these being “inner energies” not outward accomplished tasks, this “room” designed for them is, though strong, a quieter place than the others, more meditative – a place of contemplative repose.

Some of this imbued mood is, perhaps, a direct physical result of a landscape-architectural decision: Whereas the central terrace has wide entrances on both road and river sides, and the south terrace seems too big and long and hard, this northern terrace seems more a pocket park unto itself, almost entirely blocked from the road by a green wall of hedges and shrubs, thus truly creating a “room,” a shelter, with a picture window on the flowing water.

In this “room” are four figures, created by sculptors – Ahren Ben Shmuel, Koren der Harootian, Jose de Creeft and Waldemar Raemisch – far less well known than, say, Jacques Lipchitz, whose piece “The Spirit of Enterprise” in the central terrace (moved there, smartly, from its original home in this northern terrace) is much more massive and much less integrated and involving. The four figures represent, as their pedestals indicate: “Laborer – He wrought miracles”; “Scientist – He weighed the stars”; “Poet – He shaped our dreams” (although, the figure, very female in form, gave impetus to someone with feminist leanings to scrawl and scratch an “s” in front of the “he” ); and “Preacher – He guided our ways.” These strange, almost ghostly, haunting figures have a type of spiritual life to them, a sense of either just being formed or devolving back into their blocks of stone. They engage us by not trying to; we are drawn to them, instead of how, in the other terraces, the works seem to impose themselves on us.

To come upon this “room” by accident is like going for a short sailing voyage and encountering Atlantis. But to visit for the tenth time, or hundredth, takes nothing away from its depth and its ability to make you think about what it wants you to and what you want to. It is art in its totality, and engenders artfulness of thought in those who enter it.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Philly-centric, Small & Great

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