We Shouldn’t Put a Mural on the PSFS Building, But …

It's fun to think about what stupid art we could put on the back of that black brick.

The south view of the Philly skyline kinda sucks. The view from Camden is killer. From the banks from the Schuylkill, you can even get the Cira Center in the skyline view. The views from the North and South aren’t that great, but the skyline still looks decent driving down I-95 into Center City. From the South, though? Yuck. The buildings look too far apart, Symphony House is the closest skyscraper and the PSFS Building looks like a black brick wall.

Now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, the PSFS Building is a gem of our city’s skyline. The first U.S. skyscraper in the International style is probably the city’s most acclaimed building. Unlike some of the other pieces of great architecture—say, Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories—this one isn’t beloved by architecture nerds and hated by everyone else. The neon PSFS sign, a relic of a bank that no longer exists, is still an integral part of the skyline. People lost their minds when it was turned off for a few months in 1991.

The south side of the building, though, is a wall of black brick. Windows only flank it. Could the black wall be a blank canvas?

That’s Conrad Benner’s idea. The 27-year-old proprietor of Streets Dept., a Philly public art blog, wants to paint a mural on the back of the PSFS Building. He says he came up with the idea after learning of Omaha’s Fertile Ground, a 32,000-square foot mural that’s the largest in the United States. That means Omaha has two things on Philadelphia, as it’s also the place where the TV dinner was invented. Benner says a mural on the south side of the PSFS Building would be a testament to the city’s art community that has flourished over the last decade. Benner put up an online petition and made a mock-up of a proposed designmedia hits rolled in.

Of course, the chances of putting a mural on the back of the PSFS Building are absolute zero (−459.67° Fahrenheit). The building’s a National Historic Landmark. There are only about 2500 of them, and the utmost care is taken with their preservation. (I live in an area on the National Register of Historic Places, a much more expansive list, and I’m worried about changing light bulbs without written permission.) When the PSFS Building was converted into a hotel in the late 1990s, the National Park Service, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission all monitored the rehabilitation. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties were followed. There are so, so many hurdles to overcome. An online petition didn’t get the Barnes Foundation moved downtown; a bunch of really, really rich people did. (Ooh! Maybe we could cover the back of the PSFS Building with money!)

Benner’s heart is in the right place. This is why I actually like the idea: Since it has zero chance of happening, it’s just a thought experiment. It’s a blast, thinking about what could be on the back of the PSFS Building! Do we finally have a spot for the soon-to-be-moved King of Jeans sign? We could put a cool, multi-panel comic mural on it. (We can even call it a graphic novel if you want to class it up a bit.) What better way to honor Cornbread than with a 30-story version of his tag? Or we could do an homage to 1980s arcade game Rampage and drape giant monsters on the sides.

Alternatively, we could do something not stupid.

What I think this mural proposal does show is how much people really care about public art. The negative (and some positive) comments about the project are intense. (The best comment is on Curbed: “It would be cool to paint Nicolas Cage in his role at Ben Gates in the National Treasure movies.”)  People go absolutely bananas when there’s a piece of public art they don’t like. Do you know how often I have to defend how great the Clothespin is? Not very often! But when it does come up I love defending it as art, as a meeting place, whatever. Public art should be designed to stir discussion. Some people should hate it. While I don’t like the idea of a mural on the PSFS Building, I love the idea of discussing it.

For now, though, there are more pressing matters: It’s shocking, but Philadelphia doesn’t have the world’s largest cheesesteak. That’s right: Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks and Acacia Real Food & Cocktails of Tucson, Arizona, created a 426-foot cheesesteak in 2011, smashing our the measly 365-foot cheesesteak we created in 1998. Frankie from South Philly, how could you?

This simply cannot stand. There’s no red tape here: The city’s cheesesteak impresarios simply must band together to break Tucson’s record. It’s not all bad news, though: That Rocky Statue in Žitište, Serbia is only three meters tall, making our 10-foot one just a bit taller. Plus, Serbian Rocky looks pretty shabby; we can breathe easy on that one.