Brawl on the Square

Jane Golden built the Mural Arts Program into one of the city’s proudest achievements, a testament to the power of art to transform neighborhoods. Then a painting proposed for Rittenhouse Square ruffled the feathers of the city’s elite — and all hell broke loose

The placement of a mural near the city’s toniest and most exclusive square meant “entering the unknown” to Golden. “But,” she says, “it certainly seemed worth pursuing.”

Through a competition, the artist picked to design the mural was Michael Webb, a 61-year-old painter with a master’s degree from Pratt in New York who for many years taught design at Drexel. Webb, who describes himself as an “architectural muralist,” was a Mural Arts Program veteran who had previously done large public paintings in the city that featured architectural details and trompe l’oeil elements. The one on the side of the Beasley law firm offices at 12th and Walnut, for instance, that portrays Philadelphia’s architectural heritage. And the one on what had been a big blank wall behind a Sunoco station at 22nd and Walnut, that gives glimpses of a church that once stood on the spot as if the structure is still standing, reflected in painted windows.

“I rarely get such a good assignment in terms of subject matter,” Webb says of Rosen’s project. “In most mural commissions, committees get together and write up a mission statement, and they’re all the same: diversity and community. This had a topic — law as an instrument of social justice — where I could really get into some metaphorical imagery.”

The image that emerged was of a sculpture garden. The most prominent figure is an unfinished statue of the famous lady who holds the scales of justice, seated in a big marble chair, with construction workers around her, raising her bronze arms into place. “It’s perfect,” says Paul Rosen. “Justice is still under construction.” Arrayed around Lady Justice are smaller bronze statues of lawyers who hold prominent places in the history of the seesaw battles for individual rights in our legal system — guys like Thomas Jefferson, Louis Brandeis, John Marshall and Clarence Darrow.

Rosen and his partners reviewed Webb’s design, then took it to Golden. “Jane loved it,” Rosen says. “Everybody loved it.”

In the meantime, Rosen had gone ahead and secured approval to lease and paint that ugly wall from the building’s owner, Allan Domb. Parking lot operator Joe Zuritsky, who with his wife Renée is a strong supporter of the Mural Arts Program, had no objection. As the design was being completed, Rosen even struck an agreement to pay Zuritsky for the parking spaces that would be occupied by scaffolding while the mural was being installed. Everything seemed ready to go.