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 WARS THAT are fought around Rittenhouse Square are usually quite civil.

Occasionally, a perfect apartment in one of the best buildings will become available and provoke a skirmish of bidding by rival buyers. The Ladies Who Donate will sometimes engage in some sharp-elbowed jockeying for chairmanship of the proper charity event. And, of course, the opening of Stephen Starr’s Frenchified Parc this July forced tout le monde to tussle not just for a good table, but for any table.

So it was a little surprising when word started spreading of a bitter fight over the fate of a dowdy little wall on a cute little side street just off the Square. Tempers began flaring in June, around the time of the signature annual soiree of the Rittenhouse set, the Ball on the Square, where nasty whispers mingled with Eddie Bruce’s cocktail music and Georges Perrier’s canapés. Not long after, a shouting match erupted inside the earnest Ethical Society, pitting neighbors in the city’s most exclusive precinct against one another. Some think the fight is simply the latest manifestation of the always-simmering conflict between Old Money and New, the battle lines drawn in the sands of taste and propriety, fought at close quarters with charges of crassness hurled against a return volley alleging elitism. “This is just insanity,” says one prominent Rittenhouse resident who was at the Ethical Society brouhaha but didn’t want his name in print. “These people are crazy. I’m not looking to get into a fight. All the people on either side have had such a crazy, emotional response. I can’t even talk to my wife about it.”

The “it” in question is a painting, a big painting — a mural that would cover the two-story side wall of an art gallery bordering what is now a 40-space parking lot run by Joe Zuritsky’s Parkway Corporation. The lot sits on a tiny block known as Rittenhouse Street, which runs east to west between 17th and 18th streets. A lot of people agree with Zuritsky’s own evaluation of the aesthetic value of the spot right now: “It’s an ugly wall behind an ugly parking lot.”

It was when someone tried to make that wall look nicer that things really got ugly. The crazy, emotional argument started after attorney Paul Rosen — whose most recent high-profile client was Alycia Lane, in her battle against CBS 3 — announced that he was planning to cover Zuritsky’s blank wall with a realistic, allegorical painting depicting “Justice,” and the role of civil attorneys like himself in its noble pursuit. The artwork would be paid for by a foundation funded by Rosen’s law firm, Spector Gadon & Rosen, PC, to help encourage positive depictions of lawyers. The actual painting would be created under the auspices of the world-renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and its much-lauded and beloved director, Jane Golden.

So an ugly wall gets covered with a pretty painting about Justice. Who could argue with that?