Long hidden behind vendor kiosks in the basement floor of a Philadelphia mall, a massive tile mural by Larry Rivers is finally visible in its entirety once more. Completed in 1984, “Philadelphia Now and Then” has been somewhat of a headache for city officials who have been trying to restore and relocate it for over a decade. Spanning 75 feet long and eight feet tall, the piece consists of 600 ceramic tiles — many in need of repair — cemented to a wall, and finding a new home for it was an immense challenge.
The artwork now gleams in a concourse of the City Hall SEPTA station, having undergone its first-ever restoration. It originally graced a similar site for those in transit: a passageway in the Gallery, a major mall at Market East. When the mall was under construction, its developer had commissioned the artwork through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Percent for Art Program, which often works with private developers to commission public art on their properties. The program has been trying to restore or relocate the piece for many years as the site has evolved and businesses have crowded the area around the artwork.
“The original idea was that it would be in a concourse-level commuter tunnel with food and other amenities,” Julia Guerrero, director of the Percent for Art Program, told Hyperallergic. “Over the years what happened was that retailers were allowed to set up kiosks in front of the mural so it soon became obscured. A lot of people didn’t even know it was there because, frankly, you couldn’t see it.”
As its name suggests, the work, divided into three 25-foot-long panels, pays homage to Philadelphia through an eclectic variety of local, historical icons. Among these are one massive portrait of Benjamin Franklin, a rough depiction of the Mummers Museum, and homages to the African-American abolitionist James Forten and the photographer Thomas Eakins.
The artwork finally underwent restoration as the Gallery’s current owner, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), wanted to redesign the mall. The new architectural plan called for the removal of the wall to which the River mural is cemented. Last year, the Percent for Art Program partnered with the restoration service, Materials Conservation, to remove and clean up all 600 tiles, which are handcut and curved. The artwork was in “poor condition,” Guerrero said, and the process was rigorous, especially since some tiles had cracked; a few were beyond repair and had to be carefully recreated.
The Percent for Art Program has considered many locations over the years but only recently heard that SEPTA was planning a major overhaul of the City Hall concourse. The newly redesigned site, with a long, blank wall, proved to be the perfect solution for the Rivers mural, which can now finally be properly appreciated once more by countless passersby.
“It is tough to find a place this big and public that you know will stay public,” Guerrero said. “The mural has such visual impact, that even in a high traffic corridor, people stop to look at it.”