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

“Our road to happiness,” says the society’s website, “is one of honest involvement with those around us.”

But as it turned out, this particular road was not headed toward happiness.

A few days before the meeting, an architect named David S. Traub wrote a letter to a local weekly in which he compared his observations of what he called the “bel composto” of Rome with Philadelphia’s situation. Traub wrote of lovely little Rittenhouse Street, mentioned the “ugly surface parking lot behind the Art Alliance,” and maintained that “the proposed mural on the west-facing wall will only detract from the high quality of this streetscape.”

“There is no way that a mural can embellish this lovely spot no matter what painterly devices … might be employed,” the architect wrote. “There is no way that it can be harmoniously fused into the context; it can only intrude.”

Meanwhile, Golden received a few phone calls (she won’t reveal names) warning her that people had problems with the mural. “The calls I received echoed some of what I had heard in the first meeting,” Golden says. “Newer people called me who were a bit more definitive in their statements. Everybody was being cordial and polite. But the subtext was there: The mural was not developed with us. It came from the law firm. It was their idea, not ours.”

Golden urged the callers, “Please attend the next meeting. Please don’t judge until you’ve seen the design.”

In retrospect, artist Webb thinks he may have made a tactical error by not preparing a color version of his new design, but he didn’t have the time. The new rendering he brought that night incorporated most of the suggestions made by neighbors at the first meeting, but a black-and-white illustration, he says, “is a little aggressive. Color creates a soft atmosphere.”

No matter what Webb brought with him, the atmosphere inside the Ethical Society was going to be anything but soft. Paul Rosen had heard about the calls Golden received — calls that he believes were really saying, albeit politely, “Not in our neighborhood, Jane.” Now, as the meeting started, Rosen sensed the resistance.

What happened as the meeting progressed has a kind of Rashomon quality to it; as in Kurosawa’s famous film, the facts seem to change depending on the narrator’s point of view. But one thing is certain: Here in the city’s most posh precinct, in a building billed as the home of “thoughtful, rational discussion,” all bloody hell broke loose. If you were to piece together a number of eyewitness reviews, the way they do for Broadway shows, it might read like this: “Heated … emotional … hostile … petulant … vicious … yelling and nastiness … ”

“It quickly deteriorated into people shouting at each other,” says Diane Dalto, one of half a dozen people who came down on the opposition side. (The others, Rosen says, were Art Alliance president and arts philanthropist Carol Shanis; philanthropist Virginia Kimmel, who, with her husband Harvey, primarily funds theater organizations; upper-crust interior decorator Bennett Weinstock; Joanne Berwind, a board member of the Friends of Rittenhouse Square; and Traub, who insisted on reading aloud his letter lamenting the mural’s effect on Philadelphia’s bel composto.)