Art Commission considers (another) 9/11 memorial, hotel exterior renovations

Members of the Philadelphia Art Commission received a rare opportunity to stretch their critical muscles Wednesday during a lengthy, and often quite contentious, examination of a proposed memorial to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The project had been scheduled to come before the Commission in June, but was withdrawn after various groups complained and The Philadelphia Inquirer published several stories about the emerging controversy. At Wednesday’s meeting, the memorial received a rather unenthusiastic conceptual approval that came tinged with lots of recommendations and the unequivocal disapproval of two of the eight members present (Moe Brooker and Karen Davis).

All in all, the debate encompassed serious considerations of aesthetics, symbolism, materials, and artistic elements and media that merited the expertise of Commission members and stood in marked contrast to the nitpicking and design-by-committee that so often mars its meetings (including, earlier, this one).

The memorial, titled Mending Liberty, is the brainchild of Steve Saymon, a local first responder to the disaster, and Jeffrey Little, a contractor and the designer of the work, which is planned to be near the main entrance of Franklin Square. In objecting to the very premise of the multi-faceted memorial, Davis cast doubt on whether this is the right place for it, while Brooker centered his opposition on the fact that no professional artists had been directly involved in the work’s creation.

In fact, Brooker — speaking in modulated tones that seemed to strive for a sense of respect and patience — interrupted the presenters soon after they’d begun describing the work to make his points. “I’m a little disappointed,” he said, “that this seems rather small in comparison to the power of the day.” As Saymon strove to defend his concepts, at one point excusing himself as his emotions threatened to overcome him, several Commissioners echoed Brooker’s sentiments, suggesting that the project lacked exactly that — emotion.

Instead, it relies on rather unsubtle imagery for its message by placing two 9-foot monoliths on either side of a Liberty Bell replica (made in part from molten steel from the twin towers) anchored between them. Commissioner Emmanuel Kelly questioned whether any such replica is needed, when the real thing sits only a few blocks away. He also scoffed at the large keystone-shaped emblem emblazoned on the ground of the memorial’s site, while Brooker expressed horror at the large image of the American flag that is printed inside of the keystone. “It’s excess,” he said, getting emotional himself. (A true flag will also fly over the site.)

The whole thing presents a “series of symbols that have no relation to each other,” noted Commissioner Robert Roesch. “Our eyes are darting around looking for something to glom onto.” Commissioners suggested that instead emphasis be placed on the genuine relics that Saymon has gathered to represent each of the areas impacted by the event: limestone from the Pentagon, a beam from one of the World Trade Center towers, and soil from the western Pennsylvania crash site.

Although both Kelly and Brooker decried the replica bell as irrelevant to the work, its elimination was deemed a non-starter by the creators of the memorial. The final motion for conceptual approval, then, included five suggestions, which the designers will address in future months. They were: put the focus on the artifacts, remove the towers, relocate the bell, rethink the use of red brick pavers, and look into crafting a berm so that the site allows the visitor to, in the words of Commissioner Jose Alminana, “experience a more intimate relationship with the artifacts.”

In other cases, the Commission also  granted conceptual approval to exterior alterations at the reflagged Wyndham Hotel (formerly a Holiday Inn) in Old City and to a reconstructed Montgomery Avenue bridge that connects the Brewerytown and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods.

As part of its upgrade, the hotel, which comes under Commission jurisdiction because it is adjacent to parts of Independence National Historic Park (namely, the Christ Church burial ground and the Arch Street Meeting House), will feature a jazzed-up porte cochere, a subdued (via repainting) facade, and new plantings, courtesy of Cope Linder Architects.

The Commission asked for a more thorough look at the project’s evening lighting scheme — “we don’t want to wake up the deceased,” said Kelly, noting that the current drawings made the entrance lighting resemble a “Rite Aid” — and the plantings, spurred by Alminana, who said that taller flowering trees would work better than the crape myrtles suggested by the architects. “Why not go all the way?” he exorted. “This is a pretty significant part of the city . . . and we won’t have this opportunity again [to make such improvements].”

In its discussion of the proposed replacement bridge, the Commission bogged itself down in almost comical fashion, minutely considering the ratio of brick to concrete, the positioning and material of proposed signage, the texture and color of the concrete, and just how inspired the whole thing was in its leanings towards classical, contemporary, or mixed, stylings. In the end, applicants were asked to digest all of the varying opinions and options they had heard and come back with some new ideas.

The morning’s quickest case concerned the vote of final approval for a water treatment plant in the Northeast, after the applicants returned with enough changes — too unextraordinary to recap here — to satisfy the Commission.

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