It seems as though a wormhole in time has opened up on West Market Street, and 10 figures from midcentury America have tumbled out right into the center of an empty lot beneath the Market-Frankford El.
There is a strolling professor, in a suit, reading an open chemistry text as he walks, utterly oblivious to the bikinied woman in a lounge chair over his left shoulder. Nearby are some besuited businessmen wearing black cordovan wing tips. A hot dog vendor holds a bun in his hand for no one in particular.
Around them – there are 10 figures in all — is a rubble-strewn lot between 47th and 48th Streets.
“It looks real,” said a woman, giving a quick look as she hurried past the chain-link enclosed lot. “I’m like walking up here and looking and it’s like, Why? Why? What’s going on?”
As unlikely as it may sound, it appears that the 4700 block of Market Street has been targeted by a somewhat reclusive private foundation — the Daniel Veloric Foundation — as the site for a museum sometime in the future. The figures are all sculptures by Seward Johnson, the New Jersey-based artist of ordinary folks doing ordinary things.
There is no indication at the site what the figures are or where they might go. There is no indication that a museum is in the offing. Just painted bronze figures in suits and beachwear standing on dirt in West Philly.
A check of city records indicates that the Veloric Foundation acquired the entire block along Market Street in 2017. Two lots at the corner of Market and 48th were sold to Philadelphia Community College at “below market value,” according to the college, as part of a 63-acre parcel Veloric dealt to PCC. The college intends to use the land to expand its Automotive Technology Program.
But the rest of the block, now studded with the Seward Johnson figures, Veloric sees as a spot for “a museum, classroom, and public meeting space and other community activities in West Philadelphia," according to the foundation’s 2017 federal tax return.
According to the tax return, the cost for the museum effort that year was more than $1.3 million. City records suggest that at least part of that expenditure went toward building demolition.
Veloric is the sole manager and trustee of the $84 million foundation, according to the tax return, which states no mission, an unusual omission according to nonprofit officials. (The Veloric Foundation is registered with the government as a nonprofit charitable foundation.)
Aside from the million-dollar-plus museum expenditures, the foundation gave away $50,000 in small donations in 2017, including $20,000 to Lankenau Hospital and $10,000 to PCC.
Veloric, unpaid, is the sole board member. The largest single contractor for the foundation, receiving $860,688 in fees in 2017, was Veloric Asset Management, an investment adviser based in Bala Cynwyd. It could not be determined what the exact relationship was between the operation of the foundation and the operation of the asset firm.
Veloric, who is 91, referred questions to his attorney, Albert S. Dandridge, III, a partner in the law firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis.
Dandridge was a bit vague.
“It’s an opportunity zone,” he said of the location along Market Street. He said the statues are “sort of a holding spot for now,” and may not end up at that precise location.
“I don’t know exactly how they were acquired,” Dandridge said.
Dandridge characterized Veloric as an entrepreneur who has labored in West Philadelphia his entire life, running multiple businesses, in the health-care and financial services industries. At a ceremony at CCP in 2017, Veloric said, “I want to give everybody an opportunity," according to a news release from the school. "Education is a slam dunk.”
Expanding opportunities is apparently the way he thinks about the museum, too.
The statues come from the Seward Johnson Atelier, according to notations on their bases. But whether they were purchased or leased could not be determined.
Officials at the Hamilton, N.J.-headquartered atelier — which produces “authorized limited-edition castings of sculpture by Seward Johnson for both sale and exhibition,” according to its website — did not respond to inquiries. Neither did officials at Grounds for Sculpture, the public sculpture park founded by Johnson in Hamilton.
Dandridge said that Veloric wanted the sculptures out in the open to be seen.
“It gives the neighborhood hope,” he said, describing Veloric’s thinking. “People walking by are going to say: ‘Oh my god. Somebody wants to do something here. All these years it’s just a vacant lot.’ ”
Dandridge said he didn’t have a timeline for the project, but he said Veloric has told him: “I’m 91 years old. I’m in a hurry.”
Dandridge said he thinks a museum will emerge “sooner rather than later.”
A man hurrying past the site Monday did not stop to talk about the future. He simply pointed to a Mural Arts Program sign painted on the side of a building on 47th Street overlooking the empty lot and its new population. The sign reads: “For what I want I can wait. I’ll wait 4800 years if I have to.”