A long-lost public sculpture is now back where it belongs, in North Philadelphia.
“El Gran Teatro de la Luna,” by celebrated artist Rafael Ferrer, was installed in Fairhill Square at Fifth and Lehigh streets in 1982. It was removed in 1999 and languished in a municipal storage facility.
“Folklore says that, in American history, there are no second acts,” said Ferrer. “The truth of the matter is, the second act is infinitely better.”
Penny Balkin-Bach of the Association for Public Art says the decline of Fairhill Square park occurred in the 1990s, several years after the original installation of the sculpture “El Gran Teatro de la Luna.”
Vandals regularly struck the sculpture, even though it was mounted on the roof of a small building in the park.
“The intent of the piece was to be a place where people will come and play music, or talk, or whatever,” said Ferrer in the lobby of Sofitel Hotel in Center City. “It’s a place offering itself as a site for the public to use however they want — public activities of a civilized nature.”
The sculpture is a joyous piece of work: a parade of flat, cut-metal figures twisting, flipping, and contorting as brightly colored circus performers. They are roughly shaped, with snaking arms and legs like a child’s drawing. The piece has buoyancy.
Eventually, the building it was mounted on became a blind for drug dealers. The city tore it down, and the sculpture came down with it.
Last year, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy secured a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to reinstall the sculpture on top of an open trellis, making the sculpture more accessible. You can walk underneath and around it.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s an old work. It seems new,” said Ferrer, who with his wife repainted all of the figures. “The shapes were the same, but the individual images you see are totally different. I came at it with great energy because I had new ideas in those shapes.”
In addition to the sculpture, a new stage are has been built in Fairhill Square park, with new landscaping. A nearby commercial corridor also has garnered attention — most visibly in the form of metal palm trees installed in the sidewalk — to revive the neighborhood.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated what Fairhill Square was like when the piece was installed.