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Restoring Philly’s Magic Gardens, which weren’t supposed to last

The Magic Gardens will be altered here and there, because some of the art is literally deteriorating

Yaara Ben-Dor removes and restores part of the tiling on the steps of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street on the morning of Tuesday, July 31, 2018.
Yaara Ben-Dor removes and restores part of the tiling on the steps of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street on the morning of Tuesday, July 31, 2018.Read moreMAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer

Yaara Ben-Dor knocks on a mosaicked step inside Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, artist Isaiah Zagar's immersive art environment and beloved selfie spot on South Street, and hears a hollow sound. With a chisel she releases cobalt blue tiles by the late Mexican artisan Jorge Wilmot, revealing once-bright pink grout, and sets them aside to be reinstalled.

Nearby, Andrew Perez is on a ladder with something like a giant toothbrush and a spray bottle, cleaning a cluster of mugs cemented over a narrow corridor.

Piece by piece, they are chipping away at one of the Magic Gardens' biggest challenges: long-term preservation.

Zagar started tiling outside his South Street studio at what would become the Magic Gardens in 1991. It's a richly layered art installation, built over many years, that is as deliberate as it is a spontaneous record of creative life on South Street. It's made from all kinds of materials cemented together — bottles and bicycle wheels, bathroom tiles and broken dishware — punctuated with folk art pieces collected from around the world and text Zagar paints on tiles.

This year Zagar, 79, marks his 50th year making mosaics on and around South Street., and the Magic Gardens celebrates its 10th anniversary open to the public. Last year, it welcomed more than 150,000 visitors and is on track for more this year. Even as Zagar remains a prolific creator, the Magic Gardens has become more proactive in its mission to preserve his work.

That, Zagar acknowledges, "is not easy because all the materials are gathered and not assessed for their longevity, just put in the mix."

In 2011, Emily Smith, now the Magic Gardens' executive director, and Stacey Holder, the site's first preservation manager, were staffers grappling with questions about the Magic Gardens' future. They worked together to triage repairs when they could steal time but wondered what it would take to ensure the site's longevity.

"How do we maintain this space that's really strange and beautiful?" Smith asked, which remains a question. "We want to share it with people forever."

"We had to learn slowly and are still learning," said Holder.

>> READ MORE: Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia Artist

In 2014, the Magic Gardens received a $30,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to perform a conditions assessment for the entire site and to develop new systems for maintenance and conservation.

Engineers found most of the structures sound, but some areas required reinforcement, which is now being done in phases. On a recent visit, Ben-Dor was suspending Mexican tin and mirror ornaments from lengths of recently installed steel reinforcing bars to shore up one of the site's meandering corridors. Nearby, lengths of white PVC pipe mapped out where the next batch of rebar would soon be installed.

Staffers worked with conservators to develop new systems for inspections and treatments for the environment's wood, glass, ceramic, and metal elements. Metal bike wheels are now being treated with rust inhibitor. When bathroom tiles fail, they're likely to be replaced with tiles meant for outdoor use. Mosaics are being reset in thinset mortar instead of mastic, which is water soluble. The staffers want to keep the site feeling vibrant, so they are experimenting with different pigments to continue Zagar's tradition of cheerfully tinted grouts.

These adaptations are intended to make the Magic Gardens more lasting, ideally without sacrificing Zagar's aesthetic or methods. But, Zagar said, he leaves room for staffers to leave their mark on his work too.

"The kind of preservation I have proposed is different than any other I know of. I have trained people into expressing a little bit more than what is called preservation. In other words, they put their imprint on it because they can choose other pieces than what had been there before. They're not imprisoned by what I have done. They have some leeway, not a lot of leeway, but some," Zagar said. "As time goes by, I will clarify my thinking about how things are going in terms of that change."

Preservation staffers do repairs and maintenance on Tuesdays, when the site is closed and when weather cooperates. The other six days a week, all day long, the front desk staffers tell a steady stream of visitors the same thing as they buy tickets: "We ask that you not touch or lean on the mosaics. Photos are fine." Much like extreme weather, visitation is taking its own toll.

Smith said the visitor numbers have doubled in the last three years, as people increasingly are drawn to "authentic" city experiences and their Instagram-ready settings.

"The world is smaller now and people are able to find these special sites more easily. And I think there's a desire to keep them around as the world seems to be shifting to be so corporate and so whitewashed."

Increased foot traffic has meant some areas, like floor mosaics, require more frequent and durable repairs. And then there is the problem of guests with sticky fingers who break off pieces of the garden as souvenirs, creating new voids that Zagar ultimately helps fill.

This summer, preservation staffers have been replenishing the garden with new pieces of folk art acquired on a recent trip to Mexico created by artists and families who have long collaborated with Zagar and his wife, Julia,  owner of the Eyes Gallery at Fourth and South Streets.

Zagar takes an active hand in guiding change at the Magic Gardens, training and advising staff, and occasionally adding to the site. One late July morning, he surprised staffers with a new mosaic on a concrete pier, spelling out a German word in red lettering on square white tiles, surrounded by slivers of mirror. The word, gestamtwerk, means a comprehensive artwork made of many types of art, much like the garden itself.

Zagar's masterworks — the Magic Gardens, his studio on Watkins Street, and the Painted Bride art space in Old City — took years to assemble. His public mosaics stretch down skinny streets where, at just the right time of day, pieces of mirror make sidewalks dance with reflected light, bottles embedded neck-down glint in the sun, brightly tinted grouts are the backdrop for giant portraits, and some tell stories about other artists and residents. Zagar's work dances across more than 220 public mosaics over more than 1 million square feet, largely concentrated in South Philadelphia east of Broad. And its sheer volume may mean we are apt to look past it.

>> READ MORE: Magic Gardens takes action to save Isaiah Zagar's Painted Bride mosaics: 'one of his masterpieces'

>> READ MORE: Painted Bride and its Zagar murals deserve historic designation, panel finds

Smith recently nominated the Painted Bride to be designated historic in an effort to prevent insensitive alterations or potential demolition, as the property is to be sold. Magic Gardens staff has photographed and mapped Zagar's public artworks, creating an online inventory, and will help property owners who own works in need of repair. It has also begun documentation of every folk art object at the Magic Gardens.

"The more we study, the more we know, and the bigger the Magic Gardens becomes," said Holder, opening up more stories and connections to other artists and places.

"We believe that the space is incredible and worth keeping around forever, for generations to come," Smith said. "What we've learned, through the help of experts, is that it can live."