The Ugliest Piece of Art in Philadelphia

The “Lightning Bolt,” near the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge, is a bizarre eyesore at an important gateway to the city. Here’s what we should do with it

It looks like a mistake.

It looks like a construction site abandoned long ago and only remembered by a forgotten piece of twisted steel wobbling like a drunkard against the Philadelphia skyline. It looks like a beam fell from a cargo plane and crumbled on impact but still managed to penetrate the ground enough to stand almost erect.

It looks like anything but what it’s supposed to look like, a work of art memorializing Ben Franklin’s discovery of electricity. Yes, if you look really hard, you can make out a kite at the top, a key at the bottom and I guess you can call that a lightning bolt in between. But mostly it looks like a mistake.

If this was made by a freshman art student, the teacher might give him a “B plus” with a “nice effort” along side of it. But this monstrosity cost $850,000 back in 1984 and now it sits as the first thing people see when they enter our fair city over the Ben Franklin Bridge. If you travel the bridge and don’t know what I’m talking about, you proved my point. Take a real good look the next time you come over from New Jersey and you’ll see this big, bent steel thing shooting up into view. Your eyes and brain have been doing you a favor all this time by ignoring it. You’ll probably never forgive me for calling attention to it. Now it will be like one of those “floaters” that you may live with every day and choose to ignore unless you are forced to see them in bright sun light. You know, those annoying little faults in your eye that look like floating pieces of string or lint. Trust me; those floaters are works of art compared to the blunder at the bridge. [SIGNUP]

Now I know that the “Lightning Bolt” was made by a world renowned artist, Isamu Noguchi. The Japanese-America sculptor, who died in 1988, created some of the world’s greatest urban art. I’ve been to his website, and his life’s work is impressive. But you’ll notice that his tribute to Ben Franklin isn’t one of the pieces they show on the front page of the web site. In fact, it’s hard to find. If the web site was a museum, the “Lightning Bolt” would be in the storage closet. It was Noguchi himself who proposed the 102-foot stainless steel sculpture in 1933. Fifty years later the Fairmount Park Art Association came up with the money and bought the piece of (pause as I choose my words carefully) art as a 300th birthday present to the city. A tie would have been nice; at least you can take that back.

Even after the bolt was paid for in full and constructed, the Delaware River Port Authority still almost said “no thanks” to the plan to display it on the little vest pocket of a park at the axis of Independence Mall and the Ben Franklin Bridge. At a Port Authority meeting the project was doomed until one member realized the eyesore’s silver lining.

“Have you seen it?” asked William H. Combs, Port Authority commissioner from Pennsylvania. “It’s so damn ugly; it’ll take people’s minds of the higher tolls.”

And so the Port Authority unanimously approved the monument. Six months later when it was erected and dedicated, tolls went up on the bridge from 75-cents to one dollar. True story.

And so it has stood for 25 years as a distraction. At its best the “Lightning Bolt” is ignored, but never admired. Never. Even when the sculptor was shiny and new in 1984, the sight of it prompted the Inquirer to publish this editorial:

“It shrinks in its plaza before the bridge, inaccessible to pedestrians and, for motorists, a sliver out-dazzled by a parade of billboards announcing the sizzle of Atlantic City. It is a crumpled, bent-can of a sculpture, in the end, a symbol more of the dispirited swatch of Vine Street it concludes; a propped-up monument to a city that, like Rodney Dangerfield, has had — and, with this piece of art, may continue to have — one tough time getting respect.”

But times have changed. The city has changed. And respect has come with a Renaissance. The bizarre bolt now just sits as a reminder of an unhappier time, a time of MOVE, Abscam and Disco. It sits at the foot of the bridge like a plaid jacket in your closet. It screams at you, “What were you thinking?”

So let’s move it.

I’m serious. Let’s move the Lightning Bolt to a site that makes sense, and I’m not talking about the auto graveyard at the foot of the Platt Bridge — although that’s clever. How about in the park right across the street from the Franklin Institute? Those walking out of the Institute are a brighter bunch and their day has been predestined to learning and observation. They could stop and look up at the monument and understand what it truly represents.

Now it just serves as an afterthought to those trying to negotiate a traffic maze at the bottom of the bridge. Heading up the span a motorist, after thanking God that he survived the merging traffic, may look in his rear view mirror and say, “What the heck was that?” At the Franklin Institute pedestrians can reflect on the answer and truly appreciate whatever it is they are supposed to appreciate.

And, most importantly, once “The Bolt” is moved. We can get rid of that little park and allow Route 676 to connect to the bridge. Finally, the Vine could live up to its claim as an expressway. No longer would we have to take that weird detour and exit onto 5th or 4th streets when getting on or off the bridge. You would be able to go straight instead of in a circle. What a concept!

All is possible when we move the Bolt. Ben Franklin himself, a big fan of common sense, would endorse this idea.

A lightning bolt is by nature supposed to appear for a brief moment of glory in one spot and disappear before revealing its splendor somewhere else. Lightning, we are told, never hits the same place twice. This “Lightning Bolt” has overstayed its welcome at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It’s time for it to reappear somewhere else, never to return to the same spot.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. View his video commentaries at wpix.com.

  • Rose Ann Russo

    I agree completely with moving the “lightning bolt” sculpture and doing away with the park to have access to an open highway leading to the Ben Franklin Bridge. Makes so much sense!!

  • Paul

    I must agree. I’ve been looking at that ugly thing for 20 years, and never even knew that it was supposed to be a lightning bolt. It should be moved.

  • Maureen

    I’ve certainly always recognized what the sculpture is supposed to be, but agree it’s in the wrong place. Let’s even assume it’s a “great” work of art – it can’t be appreciated where it is now.

  • not the ugliest

    The ugliest piece of art is located at 30 S 17th Street. Waaaayyyy ugly than the lighting bolt.

  • Lou Sarcone

    Why not just say pave over the park and public art to build a new road, Larry?

  • Scarlet

    great idea, thanks. Now please lend this much attention and exposure to the Barnes Foundation and the ridiculous waste of millions $$$ to move the collection to a new location 15 minutes away from its original location……..for no reason!!!

  • While We’re At It…

    why not tear down the Port Authority building that forces the severe roadway curve (and 20 MPH speed limit) at the other end of the bridge?

  • Connie

    I agree. Hey, Larry, do you know anyone at City Hall?

  • Laura

    So right, Larry.. it would be better moved. To be honest I couldn’t think of where it was until I got to the end of your article and you mention the park and 676. Then it was like I was hit with a bolt of lightning.. oh yea, that’s where it is!!

  • http://bicyclecoalition.org Philly Bike Coalition

    Getting rid of the park? How about making the park a place where you would want to visit? The views of the bridge are spectacular there. Putting a highway flyover there adds blight to an area that has had success eliminating it (Franklin Square, Independence Visitor Center).

  • Matthew Naftrzger

    Wow, Larry, you looked the website for Isamu Noguchi? That’s some pretty powerful investigation.

    Lived right in front of that sculpture for a year. Sorry it didn’t gain your instant appreciation/attention span, but it’s a nice piece to be around.

    Perhaps you could spend some time on current projects, vs. lambasting one already finished. So sorry “Lightning Bolt” didn’t meet your (pause as I choose my words carefully)… criteria.