What sort of ego – or utter lack of it – causes someone to create a haunting bit of art and not sign it, or give any indication as to who made it? And what sort of reticence, or shyness, or insecurity – or, perhaps, even contempt – would make one create a public space, redolent of an irresistible and memorable placeness, that nearly everybody cannot find and few will see?
As all eyes in this city (and, it seems, of the entire art world) are on the reopening in new digs of the renowned and yet famously odd Barnes Foundation, and as most articles written about the event mention the collection’s idiosyncratically masterpiece-festooned walls (the inestimable pieces displayed as if merely web-page thumbnails) – as this is going on, our minds wandered to a quieter place, just across town, where other walls make their own odd magic, outdoors and mostly, as good sleight of hand always is, out of sight.
It is down an alleyway that you must go, or, more likely, stumble upon, accidentally – a cobblestoned byway you would probably not even think to walk down as you ambled near the Philadelphia waterfront. And, even if you did happen to let chance and curiosity rule your wandering, sans tourist map, if you didn’t happen to turn and look in the right direction at the right time, or were distracted by a couple of cute Colonial-era buildings or their facelifted and gentrified neighbors, you could easily miss this odd and wondrous spot, which we spotlighted (ALERT: shameless promotion ahead) in our book Hip and Hidden Philadelphia.
What you will see – if you are lucky – and resembling a found-object assemblage, is part of a complex of old commercial buildings dating back to 1759 and continuously occupied by a metal manufacturer/distributor for three centuries until some of the buildings became residences and artists studios, in 1986. But, during that time – possibly in the 1960s and ‘70s – someone looked at this inset area, this car-park opening begging to be a courtyard, and had a vision as to how to make a space into a place. He or she began applying stone and terra cotta and cast concrete reliefs & sculptural decorative pieces all over the bare, stuccoed facade – architectural design elements rescued from demolished office and theater buildings around town and attached there, with no knowable philosophy or reason behind it except a pure attempt at creating a placeness-filled mews, redolent of history and misty-past endeavors. The space feels as if you’ve come upon, or, after passing through some time-travel portal, awakened in an ancient amphitheater, or place of the gods, and that yours will not be the only surprise visitation. Though in no way museum-like, it has something about it – a something of having been saved, yet of something appropriated and removed – of the feel that one experiences in the presence of the Elgin Marbles.
So many of the applied items look to be about music and/or theater; they could be (or we would like to imagine them being) relics and remnants, heroic or celebratory portraits of the now-unknown performers of their day (whatever or whenever that “day” might have been, if indeed there was ever such a what or when), or the deities overseeing creative invention among humans. There are also quite a few lion heads, giving the place an aura of power, and of kings. Mixed among the faces are moldings, wall caps, and many other figurative pieces – the effect being like entering an old mask shop that has amassed an antique collection of bygone importance. It is, we imagine, what it must have been like to be the first modern archeologists to uncover Pompeii.
But this is the vision of someone who must have known that this would not be seen by many, but who felt compelled to do this, and in the process created a placeness unique to this city, a cloistered place, knowing but compelled by instinct, captivating for its purity of purpose and its gift to the unsuspecting.