Center City’s unsightly utility boxes are getting dressed up with public art

I had never noticed the ugly brown utility boxes generously distributed around Center City until I started hanging around Geoff Thompson of the This Old City blog last year, and ever since he pointed them out to me I can’t stop seeing them:

Utility box
(Jon Geeting)

And now, thanks to the efforts of some civic groups, arts groups, and University of the Arts students, you’ll probably start noticing them too, albeit in a much more pleasant form.

Last Friday, Washington Square West Civic Association and University of the Arts unveiled the first of several utility boxes festooned with colorful original designs by four seniors in the University’s Interdisciplinary Fine Arts program: Monica Morris, Lee Reed, Corinne Sandkuhler, and Stephanie Wademan.

Eight utility boxes will eventually get the treatment, on Spruce Street at 8th, 12th, and 13th; Locust Street at 10th and 13th; Pine Street at 8th and 9th, and South Street and 10th.

Click through this slideshow to see the first three they completed as of last Tuesday:

The designs, which are based on the natural and architectural surroundings of each utility box, are printed on fitted vinyl coverings rather than painted on, because the vinyl is more durable and is projected to last about five years. 

The wraps cost about $400 each, and were paid for by UArts and WSWCA. They had to be approved by the Streets Department and the Art Commission.

UArts and WSWCA are just the latest groups to get in on the utility box-decorating fun though.

The inspiration came from this utility box at 10th and Lombard, which is painted to blend in with its surroundings: 

10th and Lombard
(Jon Geeting)

The property owners here have reported much less graffiti and tagging on the painted box than on the undecorated utility boxes, which appealed to the Washington Square West Civic Association.

And to the south in Queen Village, Paradigm Art Gallery and HAHA Magazine have been bringing artists in from outside Philadelphia to decorate the utility boxes on Bainbridge Green, and South Street.

The goal of that project, says Sara McCorriston of Paradigm, was more about bringing gallery quality art to the public space, and bringing in some of the groups’ favorite artists to leave their mark on Philadelphia’s built environment, more than it was about covering up unsightly utility infrastructure.

Both UArts, Paradigm, and HAHA plan to continue working with the Streets Department and community groups to decorate even more utility boxes in their respective areas in the future, so there will be more on the way that we might not catch. Send us your favorites on Twitter at @PlanPhilly. 

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