How a massive Robinson Fredenthal sculpture moved to Chestnut Hill in the dead of night

The “White Water” sculpture had been in downtown Philadelphia for 40 years. It now lives on the front lawn of the Woodmere Museum.

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On Monday, a massive public sculpture that had spent the last 40 years near Independence Mall in Philadelphia was moved uptown in the dead of night.

“White Water,” a stainless steel abstract sculpture by Robinson Fredenthal, was trucked out of downtown, through North Philadelphia, into Chestnut Hill, and now lives on the front lawn of the Woodmere Art Museum.

“I’m feeling stunned at the moment,” said museum director William Valerio, who traveled all night with the 40 foot long sculpture. “This morning at 3 a.m. we were downtown at 5th and Market [streets]. I can’t believe it’s a little after 9 a.m. and the sculpture is installed. It just sailed through space to arrive on its new footings.”

Although its angular stainless steel plates somewhat resemble a spaceship, “White Water” doesn’t move as gracefully. The size and weight of the sculpture required a crane, a flatbed semi, and a bucket truck driving ahead to lift power lines as it passed underneath. It could not be taken on the freeway.

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Now resting on concrete footings (which will eventually be buried by landscaping, as per the artist’s design), “White Water” may get a new life at its new home.

Its previous location was in a brick plaza sandwiched between the Wells Fargo building and the Mikveh Israel Synagogue at 5th and Market streets. In the shadows of buildings and trees, the reflective silver surface rarely saw sunlight.

The sculpture was originally installed in 1978, as part of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Percent for Art program, mandating a certain percentage of construction costs for a development involving city-owned property to go toward public art.

The American Bible Society is expanding out the ground floor of the Wells Fargo building for a future bible museum. That leaves no room for “White Water.” The sculpture was donated to Woodmere, and the Bible Society contributed to the relocation costs.

Fredenthall was a Philadelphia-based artist who died in 2009. He also made a trio of huge sculptures — “Water,” “Ice,” and “Fire” — inside the lobby of 1234 Market Street where SEPTA has its headquarters.

He believed his work should not be seen as an object, but rather a feeling resulting from experience.

“It can only be understood after you’ve gone all the way around it,” Fredenthal once said.

The new site in an open-air field outside the Woodmere will make that understanding easier.

“It was in a prime spot in the Independence district, but it was up against a building,” said Valerio. “Here in the open space you can walk around it and appreciate how light dances across the different surfaces, and makes the complex geometries even more complex.”

Valerio said the huge arched sculpture functioned as a romantic proscenium, the semi-hidden Center City location became a magnet for people looking for a place to make out. The staff of the Woodmere hope to keep the tradition alive, albeit more exposed, by inviting smooching selfies in front of the museum on Valentine’s Day, as traffic waits at a stoplight a few dozen feet away.

The hard stainless steel edges of “White Water” join a growing sculpture garden outside the Woodmere, including the flowing organic shapes of a fountain by Harry Bertoia and the rusty patina of an assemblage of oversized industrial objects by Dina Wind, “Springs and Triangle.”

Valerio would not say how heavy “White Water” is, only that it is, indeed, very heavy. He is planning a guess-its-weight contest to bring social media attention to the sculpture.

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