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The extraordinary art in our midst

When I was a little boy, my mother would sometimes visit her father's office in Center City, and my brother, sister, and I would go along.

"Mail Delivery West" is also on the building on Ninth Street.
"Mail Delivery West" is also on the building on Ninth Street.Read more

When I was a little boy, my mother would sometimes visit her father's office in Center City, and my brother, sister, and I would go along.

Papa Schmidt was a doctor at Jefferson University Hospital in Center City. This wasn't his "doctor's office," where he would stick lights in our ears and hold down our tongues with a Popsicle stick until we said "Ahh," which came out more like "Alglghh" because he pressed down so hard and stuck it way down my throat.

I think that was part of Papa's sense of humor. Once, just before giving me a shot, he held my arm firmly in one hand, lifted up the hypodermic needle with the other, looked me in the eye without a twinkle in his, and said, "This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me."

So I was always looking for escape routes whenever we visited my grandfather at work. One of them was the art I saw during these journeys to Jefferson.

In the lobby of the building where Papa worked was a huge oil painting showing surgery in an operating amphitheater.

I could see the bloody incision and the clamps holding open the pale flesh of the patient while suit-clad assistants held him still. On the left, a woman shields her eyes from the horror. In the middle, standing triumphant, was a white-haired man who looked a bit like my grandfather.

I couldn't take my eyes off this painting. It had all the gory appeal of my then-favorite wall hanging at the Art Museum, the one showing a man chained to a rock as an eagle tore open his guts and ate his liver.

As an adult I learned that the painting at Jefferson was The Gross Clinic, by Philadelphia's Thomas Eakins, one of the most famous 19th-century American oil paintings.

That was typical of my experience growing up in Philadelphia. We live in a city of such commonplace beauty, such artistic grandeur, I swear sometimes it takes my breath away.

Near Jefferson's expanding campus is another example of monumental artistic expression at sidewalk level that has enthralled and delighted Philadelphians and visitors for more than seven decades.

They are the panels installed in 1937 on the federal courthouse and post office on Ninth Street between Chestnut and Market. The bas-relief stone sculptures are a hoot to a 21st-century eye, especially the mail carriers, who are posed all elbows and angles in four 9-by-10-foot panels collectively called Mail Delivery - North, South, East, West.

North features a fur-hooded Eskimo carrying mail in a padlocked sack atop a dogsled pulled by huskies. With a little snow added, it looks particularly realistic.

South shows a shirtless Panama Canal Zone laborer simultaneously lifting sacks and banana bunches while delivering mail to a typical suburban curved-top mailbox on a wooden post, complete with the delivery-alert flag on the side.

Remarkably, the identical mailbox appears in West, which features a hand-on-hip, hat-in-hand cowboy in chaps and spurs bending over a mailbox that is anchored on a post beneath a tall saguaro cactus.

In East, a nattily uniformed postman in an urban setting delivers a single letter into a pole-mounted mailbox above the rounded deco-chrome grille and tall tires of a late '30s automobile.

In all four sculptures the men are bent at odd angles, making the physical act of delivering the mail look positively heroic in a cartoony sort of way.

But if there's an intentional tongue-in-cheek quality to the tropics-to-arctic postal workers of Edmond Amateis (1897-1981), no such whimsy is attempted by the Boston-born sculptor Donald De Lue (1897-1988) in his Olympian figures representing Justice and Law on the Chestnut and Market Street entrances to the old courthouse.

This is no blindfolded woman holding scales. De Lue's Justice, installed in the war-shadowed year of 1940, looks as if Hans and Franz had just completed a successful "Pump You Up!" Amazon makeover.

The seated Justice is naked, her breasts obscured by the massive triceps on her overly muscular outstretched arm with upturned palm that seems to demand tribute.

Law, at the Market Street entrance, is a twin to Justice. He, too, is seated and the bearded, Moses-like face is that of a frail old man. But he has arms of Schwarzeneggerian proportions. I'd put this Law on retainer for any bar fight with the membership of Roofers Union Local 30.

It's this kind of art, the often unnoticed masterpieces, that have delighted me since childhood. It's as if the city has such confidence in its routine artistic impact that it was patient enough to wait for all of us to grow up and notice.