Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Short-term art: When murals fall to developers

Each year, 6 to 10 murals are demolished or obscured due to development. John Coltrane and other iconic images have been lost.

Artist John Lewis created the John Coltrane mural in 2002. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Artist John Lewis created the John Coltrane mural in 2002. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read moreDaily News

WATCHING over Diamond Street near 33rd, the late jazz icon John Coltrane was depicted in a mural on a brick wall near the house where he overcame his heroin addiction. Coltrane is said to have played his sax in the park across the street; you could hear it throughout Strawberry Mansion.

Last year the wall fell victim to development, replaced by a yard of neatly trimmed grass hemmed by pencil-thin trees and a wooden country fence. "Tribute to John Coltrane," completed by artist John Lewis in 2002, was one of several Philly murals destroyed in recent years. Each year, authorities say, six to 10 murals in the city are torn down or obscured by new development.

So enjoy the art in your neighborhood while you can: With the city undergoing a construction boom, more murals could be threatened.

"Women of Jazz," where Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and several others overlook an empty lot on Arlington Street near 33rd, is in danger of being blocked by development, according to Jane Golden, the Mural Arts Program's executive director.

Temple University is still determining the fate of Cliff Eubanks' "Street of Dreams," which faces Broad Street near Master, on the walls of the shuttered William Penn High School. The mural celebrates the success of Philly schoolchildren and depicts several kids reading and studying.

The sale of the William Penn property was finalized this year.

"We certainly want to do what we can to preserve and reuse as much as possible," said Jim Creedon, Temple's vice president for construction, facilities and operations. "We recognize the history in the building and will be sensitive to it."

Norman Jennings, 54, a resident of Parkview Apartments across from the former Coltrane wall, remembers it well. He said he had helped Pennrose Development, a private developer known for several affordable and market-rate housing projects, demolish the building.

Outside the apartments last week, hawking vacuum cleaners, boots and furniture he'd trash-picked from Fairmount and Manayunk, Jennings recalled the image of Coltrane. "He had the whole wall there," Jennings said, pointing to the grassy lot.

Lee Reedy, vice president of marketing and communications for Pennrose, said the company demolished its building because it was dilapidated, had structural deficiencies and attracted crime.

"Our whole goal is to improve that area," Reedy said. "It's unfortunate that the mural coming down was a byproduct of that."

While painting the mural, Lewis would ride his bike to the wall every day for a month. For inspiration, he listened to John Coltrane CDs.

"I wouldn't say it's my kind of music, but I definitely got an appreciation for it," said Lewis, now a graphic designer. "That mural was a joy to work on."

Not the only one

Coltrane's isn't the only significant image lost to development:

* "I can't turn away someone who is in trouble," the late civil-rights leader Cecil B. Moore once said on a wall on his namesake avenue near 17th. It was demolished in 2013 and replaced by rowhouses.

* Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 this December, used to croon from a mural at Broad and Wharton streets in South Philly, under painted spotlights and surrounded by adoring fans. The mural was torn down last year and apartments are being built at the site.

* A mural of former Mayor Wilson Goode, who started the Anti-Graffiti Network that preceded the Mural Arts Program, was on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 18th until it was demolished.

* "Symbolic Building of a City," created to commemorate the 2000 Republican National Convention, once stood on 17th Street near John F. Kennedy Boulevard. But the building on which it was painted was demolished in 2002 to make room for the 58-story Comcast Center.

* In 2011, neighbors in Bella Vista tried to buy a property on Bainbridge Street near 9th, which bore David Guinn's mural "Autumn." Their efforts, which reportedly included crashing a zoning meeting, did not sway the developer. The building was demolished and a multifamily house was built in its place. Guinn later created another fall-themed mural, "Autumn Revisited," on Catharine Street near 8th, in which the children depicted in the first mural are shown as adults.

Erasing culture

Faye Anderson, a jazz enthusiast, is among activists critical of Pennrose's decision to demolish the Coltrane mural. "I don't care who you notify, nobody can give you permission to erase our cultural heritage," Anderson said. "You can't stand in the way of progress, broadly defined, but there has to be a way to preserve."

Former Mayor Goode said that addressing a graffiti problem was a focus of his administration in the 1980s. "I think maybe 10 years would be the limit [a mural] would last," Goode said.

Before Comcast Center

Golden said she met with a vice president of Liberty Property Trust, the Comcast Center developer, and "appealed to him from a moral standpoint." As a result, the Mural Arts Program was reimbursed for the cost of erecting the mural. The executive, John Gattuso, joined Golden's board, helping to renovate the program's current offices in the historic Thomas Eakins House.

Golden called this interaction, in which a developer offered to help the Mural Arts Program after a mural was pushed aside by progress, "a model for developer relations."

"If we know [murals] are going to go away, that gives us some ability to have a conversation," she said.

"I think the worst thing is to feel blindsided, to hear about something at the last minute."

Under the national Visual Artists Rights Act, a developer must give an artist 90 days' notice that a mural is slated for demolition, according to Will Shank, a conservator with the national organization Rescue Public Murals.

Experts say that some demolished murals can be recreated on different walls. That's "happening more and more with all the development going on," said Netanel Portier, a project manager with the Mural Arts Program. "Everything is changing these days."

Sometimes murals can be restored using varnishes and glazes. There's even a special coating that can dissolve graffiti without damaging the mural.

Amanda Norbutus, a research fellow at Villanova University with a background in mural preservation, said most restorations cost between $5,000 and $25,000, mostly for scaffolding and labor.

In 2013, Norbutus helped Rescue Public Murals touch up the fading colors on "Common Threads," an enormous mural at Broad and Spring Garden streets, and it's expected to last another two to three decades, said the artist, Meg Saligman.

Even the Coltrane mural is a candidate for recreation. Golden said it would be in another spot in Strawberry Mansion. "Somehow, we are going to raise the money for that," she said. "We are definitely doing it."

Back at Jennings' makeshift storefront on Diamond Street, where the great saxophonist towered over the landscape for 12 years, Jennings said his neighborhood needs to see positive messages from public art.

"Children walk past a store selling beer and cigars, they see the ads for them," he said. "That tells them to buy those things. But what they really need to hear is this message: 'Give back to humanity.' "