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Saved from a doomed mall, Petal the Elephant still needs a home

“Families grew up with that sculpture,” a leader of the Burlington Rotary said about the enthusiasm donors have shown in saving Petal. “There’s just a kinship.”

Derrick W. Owings in front of Petal, a sculpture of an elephant that for decades was a favorite of shoppers and their children at the now-demolished Burlington Center Mall. Owings heads up the Arts Guild of New Jersey, which hopes to find Petal a permanent home.
Derrick W. Owings in front of Petal, a sculpture of an elephant that for decades was a favorite of shoppers and their children at the now-demolished Burlington Center Mall. Owings heads up the Arts Guild of New Jersey, which hopes to find Petal a permanent home.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

Petal, the beloved, life-size elephant sculpture that escaped destruction as the demolition of the Burlington Center mall loomed in 2019, is waiting patiently for a forever home.

Ever since Burlington City welcomed her with a parade along High Street two years ago, Petal has been in storage. A proposal to display her on the city’s Delaware River waterfront had to be scrapped because Petal is made of a composite material vulnerable to the elements.

“Petal needs to land in a place where she can be safe and cared for and enjoyed by the public again,” said Derrick W. Owings, executive director of Arts Guild New Jersey. The sculpture was donated by the mall’s former owners and is now the property of the Guild, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization.

“I’ve been lovingly carrying this elephant on my back for two years now,” said Owings. “I told my wife we need an angel donor.”

He estimated that building a climate-controlled, illuminated enclosure for Petal could cost as much as $250,000 — of which about $2,000 has been raised so far, including $50 through Petal’s Go Fund Me page. But Owings hopes a 30-second video paid for by the Guild and being shown as a commercial message at the Regal Cinemas Burlington will help spread the word.

And “Petal Products” — T-shirts, totes, and aprons — are for sale on the Arts Guild website.

Named for and modeled on a celebrated Philadelphia Zoo elephant whose unexpected death made headlines in 2008, the sculpture by Glenside’s Zenos Frudakis was a fixture for 37 years at the mall in Burlington Township.

With the figure of a young boy on her back, Petal stood among palm trees in a tropical setting at the courtyard of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store, one of whose owners had commissioned the work.

Petal actually was a fountain; water sprayed from her upraised trunk, and countless wishes were made on the coins tossed into the pool at her feet. Some of those coins have been recovered, along with some of the rocks and benches that were part of Petal’s setting at the mall, and Owings envisions incorporating some of these artifacts into any new home for the popular pachyderm.

“The mall was like a town center, where people took their kids and went shopping,” said Tom Scattergood, a leader of the Burlington Rotary. The club raised $20,000 to get Petal out of the mall, transport her to a foundry in Chester, Pa., for repairs, and then back to Burlington. The Rotary also organized the parade through the heart of the historic city of nearly 10,000.

“Families grew up with that sculpture,” Scattergood said. “There’s just a kinship.”

A proposal is in the works to relocate Petal to the Burlington County Historical Society on High Street, where the Children’s History Center is at the beginning of an ambitious renovation project, said Lisa Fox-Pfeiffer, executive director.

Work on a $100,000 new performing arts space for children is underway, with a grand opening expected in 2022. The entire project, involving new spaces, exhibits, technology, programming, and both indoor and outdoor amenities, likely will cost another $500,000.

“We’ve been working on this project for 15 years, and we have raised about $85,000 so far,” said Fox-Pfeiffer.

“When the Arts Guild board approached our board about including Petal in the new Children’s History Center, we told them, ‘That would be awesome. But we cannot take on another fund-raising project. But if you guys can make it happen, we would love to have Petal for the Children’s History Center.’”

Said Burlington City Mayor Barry Conaway: “If the fund-raising can match the intentions, the [Children’s History Center] would be the perfect place. The city has been storing Petal, so no organization has to pay for the storage. We’re helping there, and we will continue that help while they continue to raise money.”

There’s no shortage of goodwill toward Petal in the community, as the Rotary’s fund-raising campaign to save and refurbish the sculpture attests. Scattergood said he expects the service club would be happy to assist in an overall effort to help create a new home for Petal — but not lead another effort to raise money on its own.

And Petal already has been spruced up at Laran Bronze, Inc., in Chester. “It didn’t look as if it had been vandalized, but there were signs of age, and some cracks we had to fix. We found pennies lodged into crevices,” said Lawrence Welker, whose father and uncle co-founded the business in 1984.

“All in all it just needed a little TLC to bring it back to what it used to be,” Welker said. “It’s definitely a beautiful piece, a fun piece, very playful, and it tied into people’s lives in a certain way. The great thing about public artwork is, it can have that impact.”

Frudakis, for whom Petal was his first major public commission, said he had been wondering about Petal’s fate.

“People were really trying to keep her from going down with the mall, and I’m glad she is still viable,” he said. “Hopefully she will be somewhere kids can enjoy her.”

Owings, a retired teacher who lives with his wife, retired teacher Nancy Collier, in an early 19th century house in the heart of Burlington, is as bullish about the prospects for raising enough money to create a new home for Petal at the historical society as he is about the prospects of his historic river city itself.

“I truly believe that, because of the lives she has touched, in the long run the funding is going to be there,” he said. “I have spoken to probably hundreds of people who have told me they have a love for this particular icon.

“I still believe in the magic of giving. It will be done.”