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

Those who did come were shown a large mock-up of Webb’s proposed design, placed on an easel in the back garden, from which they could look down Rittenhouse Street and see the parking lot and the blank wall.

“Jane Golden stood up and explained the process,” remembers Amanda Burden, an anesthesiologist who moved into the Square several years ago after finishing her residency at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. “And then the artist got up and explained what he was trying to do. He gave a lovely talk about what he thought he was going to accomplish and how art and the neighborhood work together.”

Then the neighbors began suggesting changes. “The commentary was from time to time a little heated,” Paul Rosen remembers. “Stuff like, ‘Why do we have to have a thing about Justice? Why not flowers?’ Everybody became an artist, if you know what I mean.”

The actual artist says the final mural design became “truly better thanks to the input.” Webb took away a number of suggestions — to change the bucolic background to a more urban setting, to add a few more visitors to the sculpture garden, to replace the construction workers building the lady to less-intimidating white-collar preservationists — and promised to incorporate them into a revised vision. “I was very impressed with the artist — that someone with that much talent was so modest and open to suggestion,” says Amanda Burden. “It wasn’t until about the middle of that first meeting’s discussion that someone said, ‘This is a really good thing. And this is a really good artist. It’s wonderful to have art go up anywhere.’”

It seemed to Paul Rosen that by the end of the meeting, people had come together. “Everybody signed off,” he says. “I’m talking everybody.” When the revised design was shown to Jane Golden, she thought it was “remarkable. It does everything that great murals do.”

Still, Golden told Rosen, “Paul, I would like to send it out for another meeting.” She wanted to make sure residents saw that their suggestions had been incorporated.

But as word of the project spread further through the Square, a small but determined opposition to the mural formed in time for the second public meeting. “All I know is that someone called me and told me to go to this meeting and oppose it,” says one Square resident.

It was actually a smaller group — only about two dozen people — that showed up for the second meeting, this one held in the stone headquarters of Philadelphia’s Ethical Humanist Society, one of the city’s oldest social do-gooder groups, which was built on the south side of Rittenhouse Square in the 1880s. Among other things, the Ethical Society seeks to “encourage open, thoughtful discussion … to make this a better world.”