The line between street art and vandalism is blurry and raises a question: When is graffiti historic, and does it ever merit preservation? Depending on whom you ask, graffiti might be considered a public nuisance or a vibrant contribution to our urban fabric.

An example of this debate stands near the corner of Broad Street and Erie Avenue, where a grand, Art Deco bank building towers above North Philadelphia. The building is formally called the Beury Building, named after Charles Beury, the first president of the National Bank of North Philadelphia and a former Temple University president. Built as a bank in 1927, it stands out as a gorgeous example of the era’s architecture and prosperity. The structure has been abandoned for years, following the trend of its economically depressed neighborhood, which, despite being a bustling corner of the city, has suffered decades of disinvestment.

Branded in soft pink by ambitious vandals, the building has, for many years, worn a symbol of its dereliction, and the name by which Philadelphians best know it: Boner 4Ever. And on the reverse side: Forever Boner.

A northbound view of the Beury building at 3701 N. Broad Street in Philadelphia.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A northbound view of the Beury building at 3701 N. Broad Street in Philadelphia.

The corner of Broad and Erie is now gaining some overdue attention. The Boner 4Ever building is slated to become a Marriott hotel and may be cleansed of all graffiti.

Arguably though, its cheeky moniker is a notable part of the building’s history and integral to the building’s iconic status in Philadelphia. In most instances, brazen vandalism would be low on the list of character-defining features for a historic building, but Boner 4Ever has become so entwined with the Beury Building’s identity that the graffiti’s preservation merits serious consideration.

John Ruskin, a Victorian-era theorist of historic preservation advocated for the preservation of buildings in a state of sublime dereliction. Take for example Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where decay and disorder are beautiful and captivating. Decay, however, isn’t what it used to be. When Ruskin praised the patina of age on historic buildings, he most certainly did not imagine a seven-story joke on the side of Tintern Abbey. Nowadays vandalism is a notable feature of many historic sites and an understood part of their decay. One such site of celebrated decay is Graffiti Pier, which projects out over the Delaware River near the corner of Richmond and Cumberland Streets. There, street art marks the passage of time and adds layers of personal meaning that give the pier a unique sense of place.

Graffiti covers a pier on the Delaware River near Cumberland Street in Philadelphia on Sept. 23, 2014.
David Maialetti
Graffiti covers a pier on the Delaware River near Cumberland Street in Philadelphia on Sept. 23, 2014.

We are often led to believe that preservation of a building necessitates restoration to a fixed point in time, regarding later alterations as impediments to seeing its true historic nature. The Divine Lorraine, several blocks south of the Beury Building on Broad Street, is a stunning example of a fully restored building made to look as majestic as the day it was built.

The Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad Street and Ridge Avenue, pre-renovations.
Michael Pronzato
The Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad Street and Ridge Avenue, pre-renovations.

However, reviving historic structures sometimes risks eliminating the gritty authenticity of historic assets as they have changed over time. Boner 4Ever is certainly a distracting slogan to have hanging over Philadelphia, but does it supersede, or represent, the Beury Building’s history? Would its removal result in too narrow a scope on the building’s overall narrative? The Art Deco grandiosity might shine brightly, but a core piece of the building’s identity would be lost. The joke of Boner 4Ever is now a part of Philadelphia culture and it represents a period of the neighborhood’s history that could inadvertently be erased as places like the Beury Building see renewed investment.

There is no question that restoration is needed after decades of neglect. And the building has a bright future ahead, especially because the developers of this project seem to be aware of the cultural and historical significance of Boner 4Ever to both the Beury Building itself and Philadelphia as a whole. They have indicated the possibility of a Boner 4Ever homage, if not outright preservation.

Perhaps the safest way to deal with this historic vandalism is to simply document the offending words and place a photo in the Marriott lobby. The more difficult — and arguably most Philadelphian — approach would be to leave Boner 4Ever alone, giving Philadelphians old and new a shared monument. That way we can all roll our eyes at the corner of Broad and Erie forever.

Noah Yoder is a graduate student of architectural conservation in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania.