Has Old City really come to this? A neighborhood that once gave sanctuary to art galleries and experimental theaters, makers collectives and artists lofts — a neighborhood that still bills itself as Philadelphia’s Art & Design District — would now rather have a clutch of luxury duplexes than preserve a major work by the mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar.
Zagar’s widely admired mural on the Painted Bride Art Center has been under threat since 2017, when the organization announced it was closing the venue to cash in on the rising value of its real estate and raise money to fund specific art projects. Even though that decision put the Bride’s most renowned artwork at risk, the Historical Commission, the courts and the art center’s board all refused to take steps to protect it. Developers salivated at the prospect of acquiring the site at Third and Vine as a teardown. But just when it looked like the mosaic was destined for the junk heap, an enlightened architect-developer named Shimi Zakin had a change of heart and offered to incorporate the Bride into a seven-story apartment building.
“It was a win-win-win,” said Emily Smith, who runs Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a nonprofit arts group that oversees the archipelago of Zagar mosaics around the city. “What an unprecedented thing for a developer to do.”
As laudable and welcome as Zakin’s concession is, it’s actually much more than just a nice civic gesture. His design for preserving the Bride’s signature mosaic happens to be a terrific work of architecture. Zakin is proposing to top Zagar’s handcrafted mosaic with a cube sheathed in an industrial mesh, a happy meeting of the rough and the smooth that speaks equally to Old City’s past and future. Such thoughtful architecture doesn’t come along every day in Philadelphia.
But instead of applauding the compromise, the local neighborhood group that oversees this corner of Old City, Franklin Bridge North, has overwhelmingly rejected it. At a Jan. 7 meeting, residents declined to endorse the zoning variances necessary to build the 85-foot apartment house, voting 17-7 against the project.
All the usual reasons for opposing new construction were trotted out during the debate: The apartments would be too tall. (Never mind that the building next door, the Chocolate Works, is significantly taller.) There wasn’t enough parking. (The number of spaces meets the legal requirement.) Some neighbors didn’t particularly care for Zagar’s composition, which covers the exterior of the Bride’s one-story building. (There’s no accounting for taste.) But soon another argument emerged: The neighbors would prefer to see luxury townhouses, similar to those popping up elsewhere in Philadelphia’s design district.
Building individual houses had actually been Zakin’s intention when he purchased the Bride. His firm, Atrium Design Group, has made a name for itself designing beautifully detailed homes that are much larger than typical Philadelphia rowhouses — and that often sell for well over $2 million. Zakin quickly obtained a permit for eight, duplex-style townhouses that would be 65 feet tall.
Desperate to save the mosaic, the Magic Gardens’ director asked to meet with Zakin. After Smith explained what made the mosaic’s arrangement of glazed folk tiles and broken crockery so special, Zakin tore up his townhouse plan. In its place, he came up with a design that retains the Bride and uses it as the ground floor for the new apartment building. “I’m an architect, so I appreciate art,” Zakin told me, explaining how he came to change his mind about the project.
In his revised plan, a six-story addition would hover lightly over the one-story Bride, supported at the corner of Bodine Street by angled steel legs that evoke a bundle of giant chopsticks. Since the Bride is already 25-feet tall, the arrangement bumped the project to 85 feet — 20-feet taller than Old City’s 65-foot height limit allows. But Zakin was confident that the neighbors would go for the proposal, since he was preserving an artifact of Old City’s history and doing a public good. As an architect, he had also come to prefer the apartment design to his usual townhouse fare. He even nicknamed the mesh-covered apartments “The Groom.”
How wrong he was about the neighborhood. As luxury townhouses have muscled into the empty spaces between Old City’s gritty, cast-iron-fronted factories, its galleries have closed, and artists and performers have fled for less expensive parts of the city. The biggest pushback came from Ed Fisher, whose father converted many of Old City’s loft buildings to apartments in the ’70s. Fisher, who owns a building on Third Street that was once home to the experimental theater company Etage, vowed to sue Zakin to stop the apartments. He told me he likes the duplexes, although he might accept a 65-foot-tall apartment house.
One reason Fisher said he opposes the current apartment design is that it would block some light coming into the rear of his Third Street building. But so would 65-foot duplexes. Despite being taller, Zakin’s current apartment design would actually allow more light to reach the Third Street buildings because the center portion of the building would be left open for a courtyard. Nimbyism, it seems, can warp your perceptions.
Philadelphia has always liked to think of itself as a living art museum because of the wealth of public sculpture, murals and improvisational art pieces that decorate and distinguish its streets. Zagar’s Painted Bride mosaic, which transformed a bland garage into a dazzling diva and helped boost the avant-garde theater’s identity in the ’90s, is easily one of the most significant of those extemporaneous artworks.
According to the nomination the Magic Gardens submitted in its failed attempt to have the mosaic protected, the Bride mural was a breakthrough work. Although Zagar had been adorning other walls around the city with tilework, the Bride project was the first time he had covered an entire building and incorporated intricate word play into the composition. The grouting technique he developed for the project is still known by mosaic artists as the “Zagar method.”
Zakin’s apartment building would be similarly innovative. It offers a creative response to a problem that continually vexes Philadelphia: how to preserve the city’s distinctive architecture while still accommodating newcomers. Along with keeping the Bride’s mosaic intact, Zakin has also proposed using a part of the Bride space as a public art gallery where local artists could display their work for a nominal fee.
Compare that act of civic generosity with what Alterra Property Group is doing to the garden oasis in front of International House in West Philadelphia. Even though that building is listed on the city’s Historic Register, managing partner Leo Addimando threatened to seek a hardship demolition unless the Historical Commission allowed him to fill in most of the public space with a drug store. As often happens, they sided with the developer instead of advocating for the city’s history.
The vote by Franklin Bridge North isn’t the last word on Zakin’s project, but it will carry a lot of weight when the Zoning Board hears the case on April 21. Zakin needs three zoning variances before he can start construction — one for height, another for slightly exceeding the allowable density. Since the Bride’s building already covers the entire site, he also needs the Zoning Board to grandfather-in that condition. While these “asks” are relatively modest, the Zoning Board tends to defer to the wishes of local neighborhood groups, no matter how shortsighted and self-serving they might be.
This is Philadelphia’s last, best chance to save a souvenir of its creative past. If the city misses the chance, it will have lost a piece of its soul, along with a fine work of art.