As the sun burst through the clouds and turned a sticky humid day into merely a sweltering one, Mayor Michael Nutter and a host of dignitaries began painting — literally — an image of how an asphalt parking lot in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be similarly transformed into a lively 8-acre play area for adults and kids alike. The city’s newest public spaces is an initiative of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. It is chiefly funded by the William Penn Foundation.
The $180,000 project they unveiled — called, for the moment, The Oval — is the “new shape of fun” on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The patch of land and its surrounding stands of trees, part of Eakins Oval, will feature three areas painted by Mural Arts to resemble the beach, the blanket, and the boardwalk. In her comments, Jane Golden, the organization’s executive director, observed that the project had proven to be the “opposite of the Sistine Chapel — it’s huge, but it’s on the ground.” (She and the afternoon’s other speakers would end the presentation by picking up paint rollers to symbolically begin the actual painting of the surfaces.)
Closest to the Museum, the “beach,” painted to resemble sand, will offer two 16-foot square boxes filled with the real grainy stuff, as well as mock lifeguard stations and several spray misters; the “blanket,” in the middle will include painted (over-sized) chess, checker, and Twister boards laid upon bright stripes; the ”boardwalk” will play host to a revolving group of local food trucks, accompanied by generous cafe tables and chairs.
In the trees on either side of the three painted surfaces, 40 Adirondack chairs will be sprinkled about, along with a miniature golf course and bocce, volleyball, and badminton courts. At Thursday’s press preview, these areas were already decorated with colorful Chinese lanterns, string lights, and wind chimes.
According to Julie Bush, principal of LRSLAstudio, landscape architects for the projects, when the firm presented several concepts to Parks & Recreation, “they asked us to combine all of them.” To accomplish such a tall order on budget, the firm “shopped the department’s closet,” Bush told PlanPhilly. For example, when they happened upon a bunch of unused gray buoys, they thought they could be adapted for something smart. And, so, by the end of Thursday afternoon, Mural Arts personnel had already started painting the half dozen or so buoys in the familiar bright curving stripes of the classic beach ball.
Backed by two rows of billowing orange sails that outlined the space, and with the Art Museum glowing picturesquely behind him, Mayor Nutter — dressed in an open-necked beige polo shirt and khakis – thanked the usual suspects. (They included District Councilman and Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilman-at-large Bill Greenlee, Harris Steinberg of Penn Praxis, the Philadelphia police department, funders, and various associations and neighborhood groups.)
As he ran through a list of promised programming — the park officially opens on July 17, but a showing of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is scheduled for Friday, July 12 — the mayor paused briefly at one. “Hmm, a beer garden,” he mused. “They didn’t mention that before.” When Councilman Greenlee took the mike, he retorted, “trust me, Mr. Mayor. For a number of us in Fairmount, that was our first priority. After that, it’s all gravy.”
The Oval is an experiment, cautioned speakers, noting it will be up and running for just five weeks (through August 18). How well and in what ways it’s used will be the “real test,” noted Helen Davis Picher, interim president of William Penn, in her remarks. “We’ll see whether this strikes a chord.”
With a vigorous programming schedule that includes everything from art classes to yoga sessions, from live music to movie nights, The Oval will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.