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Long-lost Calder banners on display in Philadelphia

For more than two decades, they've been out of public view, feared lost, feared destroyed, feared - at the least - grotesquely faded or damaged.

Four banners that Alexander Calder designed in 1975 for the atrium of the then-new Centre Square towers are displayed in the lobby the Free Library. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Four banners that Alexander Calder designed in 1975 for the atrium of the then-new Centre Square towers are displayed in the lobby the Free Library. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

For more than two decades, they've been out of public view, feared lost, feared destroyed, feared - at the least - grotesquely faded or damaged.

But from a cluster of nondescript plastic tubs stuck in an out-of-the-way storage room in the bowels of a Center City office tower, they were ferreted out at last, still bright and essentially unmarred.

And now, for the first time since the mid-1980s, the vanished Alexander Calder banners - part of one of the greatest public art legacies in Philadelphia history - will be on public view until March at the Central Branch of the Free Library on Logan Square.

Many thought it would never happen, and it might not have, save for the persistence of Susan Davis, former director of public art at the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

"It's a wonderful story," said Sandra A. Horrocks, vice president of communications and development for the Free Library Foundation.

The eight banners are so large - ranging from 18 feet to 28 feet in length - that only the four shortest could be hung in the library's central lobby.

"They are beautiful," Davis said. "They aren't faded or damaged, except for some small water damage. These are the only banners Calder ever designed."

The banners owe their existence to developer Jack Wolgin, who commissioned three signature works in 1975 as part of the Redevelopment Authority's percent-for-art program requirement.

Wolgin, a collector and lover of contemporary art, was completing his $80 million Centre Square project across from City Hall. Art was a mandated part of the development.

Wolgin's lead tenant, the First Pennsylvania Bank, wanted conventional statuary to grace the building.

"The First Pennsylvania people told him, 'We want a general on a horse,' " recalled Robert Weinberg, Wolgin's attorney. "He told them, 'No. You're getting a clothespin.' "

Claes Oldenburg's now-famous Clothespin was erected as part of the project. Wolgin also commissioned a giant steel sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, Milord la Chamarre, to rise from the lower levels of the Centre Square atrium.

And to hang from the atrium ceiling, he enticed Calder to design a set of banners that eventually filled the space with the bold primary colors of the sun and floral garlands and the silvery tints of the moon and starry night.

In a statement conveyed through Weinberg, Wolgin, now 92 and living in West Palm Beach, said, "a tremendous amount of thought went into the selection of the three great pieces of public art at Centre Square. . . . The goal was to provide art that would enhance Philadelphia by integrating into the daily life of those who live or work in the city the joy and inspiration derived from great art."

Reflecting a few years ago, Mary Kilroy, former head of the Redevelopment Authority art program, said the 1976 installation of those artworks marked a cultural "breakout" for the city: From that point, Philadelphia began to build its reputation as one of the nation's great nurturers of public art.

In the early 1980s, Wolgin sold Centre Square and the new owners decided to spruce up the interior. The atrium was redesigned and Milord was moved outside to Market Street, where it still stands.

The banners were taken down.

"I'm not sure what happened," Kilroy said a few years ago. The banners never returned to the atrium and no one seemed to know what had become of them.

Then, in 1994, Davis became head of the Redevelopment Authority art program.

"When I came, Mary had been out of the job for at least a year," Davis recalled. "She told me that they lost the banners. At that point, the building manager told her the banners had been destroyed - 'so don't keep asking, they're not here.' "

The building was again sold, around 2000, to a partnership headed by Metropolitan Life of Virginia. Davis sought out Greg Frazier, the MetLife building manager, and lit a fire under him about the banners.

Frazier embarked on a banner quest, searching the countless small storerooms scattered throughout Centre Square's twin towers. Weeks went by without word.

Then, Davis recalled, "he called me on Friday at 5:30 and he said, 'I found them.' "

"My heart stopped. 'How are they?' I asked.

" 'They all seem fine.' "

That was five or six years ago. Davis said MetLife was interested in donating the banners to an appropriate public venue, and she set about finding one. (The Calder-designed steel armature from which they were to hang, a piece of sculpture itself, was never used and is in a Centre Square parking garage.)

By law, art installed under the Redevelopment Authority's percent-for-art ordinance cannot be sold, donated, altered or removed without the express authorization of the Redevelopment Authority.

Davis initially thought the Kimmel Center would provide a perfect location. But among other problems, the center's glass roof does not filter out harmful ultraviolet rays.

She turned her attention to the Free Library expansion designed by Moshe Safdie. Library officials fell in love with the idea. (The Safdie atrium will filter out UV rays.)

"They became excited by the idea and Moshe Safdie thought it was a great idea," Davis said. "The banners are even now in the model [of the expansion] that's in their lobby. He worked them in."

As the banners sat hidden away in their plastic tubs, Centre Square was sold again, and various negotiations and discussions began all over with the new owners, HRPT Properties Trust of Newton, Mass.

Davis was not deterred. She contacted the new building manager, Dave Campoli, and a temporary library exhibit was arranged.

"This was the first opportunity to be able to display them again," Campoli said. "At this point, we don't have any plans. We'd obviously be open to hearing from the community about what would be appropriate. We're happy to be able to show them."

Beyond that, Campoli said, "It would be great if the right opportunity came along and if a permanent home could be found for them so they are not just preserved in storage."

Horrocks, of the library foundation, said the library would "very much love to have them" on permanent display. "We have to take a number of steps before that can happen," she said, adding, "Moshe Safdie thought they were wonderful."

Davis, who left the Redevelopment Authority about six weeks ago, would like to send the banners to New York to be cleaned and wants to see them in a permanent home on public display.

"This is a major work of a major American artist," she said. "We remember them but a lot of people don't. That's what's motivating this effort. That they're sitting scrunched up in these little tubs - that's a waste of great public art."

Wolgin, who recently donated $3.7 million to the Tyler School of Art to endow an annual $150,000 juried art prize, was delighted the banners had been found and will be on display.

"However," he said, "all of these great works of art were intended to be viewed and enjoyed by the public on a permanent basis, and it is truly sad that they have been hidden for years in a basement out of public view. I am hopeful that the city, the community, and the owners of Centre Square will work expeditiously toward the permanent public display of all the beautiful Calder banners."