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That huge Larry Rivers mural from the Gallery has a new home - against all odds

Larry Rivers' mural from the Gallery, "Philadelphia Now and Then," has been relocated to the City Hall SEPTA concourse. Early assessments of the possibility of moving the 75-foot-long ceramic work could be summed up in a single word: Don't.

Commuters can again see Larry Rivers’ landmark mural. now  in the SEPTA concourse below City Hall.
Commuters can again see Larry Rivers’ landmark mural. now in the SEPTA concourse below City Hall.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The massive tile mural Larry Rivers created for the Gallery that was installed in 1984, the mural that legions of conservators and public art mavens said could not be moved, has been moved.

Not only that, it has been completely restored, buffed up, burnished, and reinstalled in a surprising location – the SEPTA concourse beneath the Wanamaker Building, where it stands out in a way that it never did when it was up against the wall, blocked by vendor carts, and ignored by shoppers hustling through the mall.

"We're very happy with it," said Julia Guerrero, head of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's art program.

The project's conservator, Materials Conservation, and its founder, John Carr, "worked so hard on the restoration – it's amazing how seamless it is, given the condition the piece was in," she said.

"It was a painstaking project for us," Carr said, "probably the most difficult we've ever done."

What prompted the effort was the ongoing reconstruction of the Gallery, which was built partially on land owned by the Redevelopment Authority. A number of artworks, created under the authority's Percent for Art program, needed to find new homes in the face of the construction onslaught.

The Rivers mural, called Philadelphia Now and Then, is the most significant of these percent works primarily because of Rivers' stature as an artist, but also because the of the mix of cliched and eclectic scenes and characters he chose to portray – wealthy African American shipbuilder and abolitionist James Forten; a carousel pig; a naked man jumping as photographed by Thomas Eakins; Ben Franklin, of course.

Rivers used 600 paper-thin ceramic tiles to construct his mural. The thin tiles were meant to curl, like pages of a book, over time, lending an immediacy and fragility to the work. The whole was cemented to the Gallery wall.

Earlier assessments regarding removal of the mural determined that the only way to get the tiles out would be to remove the entire wall and cut it away.

Carr and Materials Conservation elected not to do that.

"It was difficult to get it off, but we managed," said Carr. "We undertook this with caution, but what we didn't anticipate was that there'd been repairs over the years, and when a tile came off, it was replaced with a different bonding material."

Different bonds require different removal techniques, a painstaking and at times frustrating effort.

Of the mural's 600 tiles, about 60 were missing or visibly damaged when the Inquirer examined the piece in summer 2015.

Carr and his team began their work about a year later, ultimately laboring for about six months to detach tiles, repair those that were broken, and replace those that were beyond repair. All were then attached to stainless steel gridlike panels to prevent further damage from wall movement after reinstallation at the new location.

The work required creation of some replacement tiles when originals cracked upon removal.

"That was a risk we had to take and that the owner had to take," said Carr. "They had to be moved."

A ceramic artist re-created tiles in the manner of the Rivers originals, and the reinstalled mural virtually glows in its new location. Newly made tiles are identified on their backs with the date of creation — 2017.

The current owner of the Gallery, national mall owner PREIT, is responsible for the artworks and has paid the costs of conservation and relocation.

Other works PREIT and the Redevelopment Authority have relocated include the exploding stainless steel column that loomed over the steps leading down to the concourse level of the Gallery at Ninth and Market Streets. Formally titled Burst of Joy, created by Harold Kimmelman in 1977, the piece has been accepted by the Philadelphia School District and Central High School and awaits a precise location for reinstallation, Guerrero said.

Another piece, David Lee Brown's Amity (1977), which rested on a pedestal at 10th and Market Streets, will be relocated to the Filbert Street side of the Gallery, Guerrero said.

The only piece that has yet to find a new home is Nizette Brennan's The Bathers, part of a fountain installed in 1983. The Bathers awaits its fate in storage.