For almost 30 years, he stood in sun and darkness, rain and snow, on the streets of Philadelphia.
Known popularly as “Umbrella Man,” he stepped forward, as if signaling a cab in the rain. He was last seen in front of the then-Prince Music Theater in the 1400 block of Chestnut Street.
But sometime in 2015, along with the Prince, he disappeared.
Where did he go? Whatever became of “Umbrella Man”? Those questions were posed to us by a reader through Curious Philly — the forum where you can ask our journalists questions.
Allow us: He’s not in Philadelphia anymore. He’s on tour. But his home is not far away: Hamilton, N.J., as a matter of fact.
But let’s step back. The actual name of the six-foot-10, 460-pound sculpture is Allow Me. It depicts a man in a three-piece business suit. He’s holding an umbrella in his right hand and gesturing with his very, very long left index finger, as if saying, “Wait a minute.”
That title, though. Whoever brought down a cab with an “Allow me”?
Allow Me is the work of American sculptor Seward Johnson II, grandson of the founders of Johnson & Johnson. It’s part of a series Johnson calls “Celebrating the Familiar.” You’ve probably seen many of the pieces in the series, and that’s the way Johnson likes it. He makes multiple copies of daily-life sculptures — boy with ice-cream cone, man with newspaper, senior lady with grocery sack, window-washer, traffic cop — and distributes, displays, or tours them throughout the country. Another one, titled “The Consultation,” is at the campus of the Presbyterian Medical Center just off 39th and Filbert Streets in West Philadelphia.
According to the Johnson Atelier Inc., the organization that tracks and controls Johnson’s productions, the original Allow Me was created in 1981. In 1983-4 a series of copies was made, for a total of seven, from the same cast, which was destroyed thereafter (apparently the casts wear out). The atelier says the Philadelphia Allow Me was the last one.
Allow Me had a long, rough run in Philadelphia. Its first sojourn here was in an exhibit of Johnson’s works in 1983-4, in front of the Four Seasons hotel on the Parkway. There it charmed lawyer and art collector Joseph D. Shein, who bought it from Johnson and had it set up in 1985 in front of the Shein-owned building where he ran his offices, at the corner of 17th and Locust Streets.
There, Umbrella Man stood for just about 20 years. Many a cabbie was said to stop, only to curse and move on. Street lore had it that he got the Philadelphia treatment, with generous applications of cigarette butts and gum.
In 2005, Shein donated the statue to the Prince. Umbrella Man was plunked just to the right of the main entrance, where he remained into 2015. Abuse continued: Luckless pedestrians walked into him, and during the joyous October 2008 street celebrations after the Phillies’ World Series triumph, vandals attempted to uproot poor Umbrella Man, leaving him crooked, graffiti scrawled on his forehead.
And then … he went away. In 2010, the Prince declared bankruptcy. After protracted uncertainty, the building was bought by a group of business investors, to be sold in 2015 to the Philadelphia Film Society, its current tenant who changed the name to the Philadelphia Film Center. According to the Johnson Atelier, that year the atelier bought Allow Me back.
Little by little, people noticed he wasn’t there.
Although the final price is proprietary, most sculptures in the "Celebrating the Familiar” series, according to the Johnson Atelier, run for $84,000, but Allow Me is now in the Johnson catalog for $130,000.
Where is he now? His physical home is the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton, N.J., next to Grounds for Sculpture. But Umbrella Man himself is on tour, according to the atelier e-mail: “[T]his sculpture is now actively traveling with the other Johnson pieces in the foundation’s touring exhibits throughout the US and Europe.”