by Gary Esolen –
The central story was about a unusual barber on 8th Street in South Philadelphia. He apprenticed with a barber who claimed to have invented the Duck’s Ass haircut, and who had spent some time in Hollywood where he barbered Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. John, the 8th street Barber, liked to play music as he worked, and would take frequent breaks to relax and enjoy the day. His story had the ring of authenticity, and we wondered immediately how to understand its connection to Philadelphia as a distinctive place.
The Barnes Foundation
Insight came when we asked ourselves whether there were other stories we had collected that were related to this one. We remembered a story about Albert Barnes, the founder of the remarkable Barnes Foundation. Barnes was a physician and businessman, a self-made man who devoted his considerable fortune to acquiring a great collection of Impressionist and early modern paintings (and the African art that influenced them) and displaying them (first in his factory and later in a house he acquired for the purpose) in such a way as to provide those who viewed them with a stimulating understanding of how they related to each other.
Barnes was influenced by the great educator John Dewey, with whom he became friends and whom he hired as the first education director of the Barnes Foundation, his legacy to the world. Barnes and the South Philadelphia barber had in common a passionate desire to do things their way.
Then we got hold of a story about Wharton Esherick. Esherick was a painter who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1913, and bought a farm west of Philadelphia near Valley Forge where he went to paint. He was, he said, a decent painter but painted “like everyone else,” interesting en plein aire landscapes in an impressionistic style. His true genius, it turned out, was for sculpture and furniture-making.
He built a studio for himself from native stone and wood. For a winding staircase he used a naturally curved tree trunk, and for the railing he used a mastodon tusk found nearby. He carved the coatpegs and the covers for electrical outlets. He hand made his own bowls and plates. He made his own furniture. A trap door between the studio downstairs and the living space upstairs was lifted with a counter-weight in the shape of his sculpture of a climbing monkey. He lived an entirely individualized life in a hand-built environment. Another eccentric genius.
Henry Mercer founded the Moravian Tile Works in the Doylestown, Pennsylvania area, creating decorative ceramic tiles in patterns drawn from ancient and medieval originals from Europe and Asia. He built a castle-like gothic concrete building to house a museum of pre-industrial tools—and included an exhibit in honor of the draft horse that had pulled the barrows of concrete up the hill to the site as the building progressed. He built a magnificent if odd mansion, Fonthill, with 45 rooms, also of poured concrete with vaulted ceilings, and decorated its interior—walls, floors, ceilings and window sills and often reveals—with ceramic tiles from his factory and some of the originals he had reproduced there. He once set a fire on the roof of his house to prove its superior quality as to safety.
We soon realized that the great Benjamin Franklin himself could be seen as the original of Philadelphia’s great eccentrics, and certainly a genius.
Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden
All this came forcefully to bear on the present character of place in Philadelphia when we encountered Isaiah Zager. We were driving down South Street and we noticed several buildings which had been decorated in stucco embedded with pieces of glass and ceramics and other found objects in elaborate, colorful patterns. They were the work of Zagar, another painter who found his métier in a different art form.
Zagar was a Peace-Corps volunteer and a conscientious objector during the war in VietNam, values he continues to embrace (and which reflect the Quaker heritage of Philadelphia), but he also considers himself to have been a deeply troubled soul. He says that a therapist told him he would find his salvation in his work, and he has been working furiously at his unique art form for decades.
Zagar actually bought some of the buildings he worked on (when real estate was cheap in the neighborhood), but his masterpiece was an installation he called the Magic Garden, which was located in a vacant lot next door to one of his buildings. Eventually the owner decided to reclaim the property (or be paid handsomely for it) and preserving Zagar’s master work became a cause célèbre in the community. A non-profit organization was created, volunteer attorneys negotiated a deal, banks lent money, and the Magic Garden was saved—and has since become much more elaborate. It is indeed a magical place, very much in the spirit of the great architect Antonio Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, and it is visited by art-lovers from all over the country and from Europe. Small entry fees and donations continue to help pay for the still mortgaged property, and Zagar has entered a wonderfully productive phase of his work, seeming endlessly inspired and energetic.
One of Zagar’s personal heroes is (of course) Wharton Esherick. Another is Albert Barnes. The tradition of committed genius, taking a view of what the world should be and using it to create something of that world, is real and it is alive in Philadelphia. It may not be too far a stretch to place Ed Rendell, the great Philadelphia mayor who went on to become Governor of Pennsylvania, in that lineage. All of this was part of the legacy of William Penn and his invitation to the people of the world to come to Pennsylvania, his colony, and practice their beliefs to the fullest.
The success of the effort to save the Magic Garden is largely owing to the deep roots that Zagar’s work has in the character of Philadelphia. South Street’s flowering as a commercial neighborhood comes in part from the quality of experience Zagar’s work has created all along the street. How much so may be indicated by the only clear failure on contemporary South Street: a publicly funded residential project that turns a bare brick and concrete face to the street and mars a couple of otherwise lively blocks. How much difference would it make if the city hired Zagar to decorate the façade to cover that blankness?
The Dream Garden and the Spirit of Philadelphia
Zagar’s “Magic Garden” is a reflection of the inclination of Pennsylvanians (in particular those of eccentric genius) to try to find or create a bit of paradise. There is another artistic garden in the city, a huge colored glass mural by Tiffany called “The Dream Garden,” located in the rear lobby of the Curtis Building, owned by the company that once published the Saturday Evening Post. It depicts a glorious, luminous landscape—that looks like the West, perhaps a place like Yosemite. When Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn decided he wanted to buy it and move it to his Bellagio casino (where he has collected and displays some great works of art) there was such a public uproar that Curtis decided not to sell after all. The mural does have living connections to life in the city—people come and see it, and some people get married or have wedding receptions or other significant events there—but that is not what was behind the anger. The Dream Garden, like Zagar’s Magic Garden, fits the spirit of this place. It belongs here, and people feel more whole and fulfilled living in a place where it lives with them.