When artist John Costanza went for one of his periodic visits to the three murals he designed in 1975 for University City High School, he was shocked to discover the school was not only closed but in a state of total disrepair.
"It looked like it was vacant for years," Costanza said of his June visit. "There were broken windows, trash all over the place, and it was chained up. And I mean chained up."
With two of his other murals already lost to reconstruction at other sites, Costanza decided these pieces depicting African American historical figures as well as students who attended the school in 1975 would not meet the same fate. So he intervened.
Costanza began with a phone call to the School District of Philadelphia, and he learned University City closed in 2013 and was bought in a joint venture by Drexel University and Wexford Science and Technology L.L.C.
Costanza then contacted Drexel, where officials were receptive to the idea of preserving the pieces because of their community value.
"It's a celebration of [the neighborhood's] history as well as a commitment to their future," said Lucy Kerman, vice provost for university and community partnerships at Drexel.
Drexel commissioned Costanza's son, Jon, a contractor, to remove the murals. Along with workers from his company, Sun Power Builders, Jon Costanza began the painstaking task of removing more than 8,000 ceramic tiles by hand - a process overseen every step of the way by the artist.
Jon Costanza said the two-week removal required great care because of the fragility of the tiles and the intricacy of the design. And working in the abandoned building was often eerie, he said.
"It's like you could see the ghost of people that used to run around this place," he said.
John Costanza said he vividly remembered the days when University City was still a thriving magnet school. When the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority commissioned Costanza to create the murals, he said, the school community was eager to collaborate with him on the design.
Eight or nine of the art classes had the murals incorporated into the curriculum, and the students researched the historical figures they wanted depicted. Costanza said the students were heavily involved - from carving linoleum tiles to volunteering to have their faces incorporated into the pieces.
The three murals - 22 feet long by 6 feet high; 24 by 7; and 3 by 5 - took approximately four months to finish, Costanza said.
For Costanza, 90, and living in Bryn Mawr, creating murals wasn't always the plan. A graduate of Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, he spent 10 years teaching art at schools throughout Pennsylvania before he became chair of the ceramics department at Moore College of Art.
After 20 years in teaching, Costanza was commissioned to create a mural for a corporation in New Jersey. It turned out he enjoyed it so much he quit his teaching job to continue creating murals.
So far, Costanza has created nine murals, many of which hang in businesses and homes.
The redevelopment authority is responsible for determining when and how to move public artwork such as Costanza's 1975 murals. Julia Guerrero, director of the Percent for Art program at the authority, said she anticipated relocating the pieces would take a year.
Guerrero said the authority planned to speak with Drexel and Wexford about incorporating Costanza's work at the K-8 school being developed at the University City site. And if that doesn't work out, the authority will look for a spot in the same area.
"Relocation efforts don't happen too often," Guerrero said.
In the meantime, the murals are boxed and stored in Costanza's studio.
For Joseph Dennis, a 1979 alumnus, the murals come to mind whenever he thinks of University City. Dennis, who is involved in planning his class' 35-year reunion, said he was pleased to hear the murals were being preserved even though he was heartbroken the school has shut down.
"It gives you some kind of satisfaction to know that at least a part of our school is being saved," Dennis said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Ceramic tiles in the three University City murals.
Months to finish the murals in 1975.
Weeks needed to remove the tiles from the shuttered school.
Dimensions of the largest mural in feet.
Murals done so far by John Costanza.