So, do yourself a favor. Next time you're going past, stop. Take a few moments to really savor them for their own sake, not for their surroundings.
Philadelphia has literally hundreds of public works of art, many of them located in business districts or near tourist attractions. They make a nice place to stop and eat a bag lunch (virtually all have benches or expanses of grass), read a book, or just chill out for a few moments. Here are some of our favorites, in areas where you're mostly likely to find them clustered:
BEST. The Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle No contest. It's just spectacular, especially since the 1990 renovation that sent the 1924 bronze fountains' jets gushing 50 feet high. The three reclining female figures by Alexander Stirling Calder symbolize three waterways: the Delaware, the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon; they're surrounded by turtles and frogs squirting smaller streams of water.
There are benches all around the fountain, and flower beds overhung by looming empress trees. Lingering there you'll tend to find a weird mixture of homeless people, youthful museum visitors and art students (the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Moore College of Art and Design border the square that surrounds Logan Circle). Parents who go in summertime will have to tell their kids that no, despite what everyone else is doing, they may not play in the fountain.
An added benefit: There are two information boards describing the fountain and its history. That might not seem like a big deal until you start paying attention to some other prominent pieces.
NOT BAD, AND NEARBY, TOO. Once you're at Logan Circle, you might as well walk down the Parkway toward City Hall. The diagonal slash of the Parkway creates a lot of triangular grassy plots in those few blocks, and it seems as though every one has its own sculpture. There's Walter Erlebacher's youthful, beardless Christ called Jesus, the Bread of Life, a bronze piece installed in 1976 outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul at 18th and Race Streets; Dudley Talcott's Kopernik, a 1972 abstract, stainless steel nod to the astronomer Copernicus (across the Parkway), and standing guard outside the Four Seasons, Marian Konieczny's towering, untitled piece commemorating his fellow Pole, Revolutionary War hero Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
On Cherry Street between 17th and 18th you'll find the frivolous: the
Tuscan Girl Fountain (there's no label on this 1965 piece by Philadelphia architect Oskar Stonorov and sculptor Jorio Vivarelli) that shows a family frolicking in a pool adjoining the T G I Friday's restaurant. And just a half- block away, the profound: a column of twisted, tortured figures titled Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs. The bronze sculpture by Nathan Rapoport was finished in 1964 and installed at 16th Street and the Parkway.
Down a block, at 16th Street, there's a marble mystery man - a robed, balding figure combing his fingers through a bushy beard. No clue whatsoever as to his identity (but we'll tell you that he's The Prophet, a 1974 work by sculptor Jacob Lipkin that earned its present spot because the city couldn't figure out where else to put it.)
AROUND CITY HALL. One of the nice things about the sculptures here is that they're so obvious. It doesn't take much to figure out Claes Oldenburg's 1976 steel Clothespin, at 15th and Market, or Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture down 15th Street at John F. Kennedy Plaza (a big hiss here to the folks who've defaced the 1976 painted aluminum piece with stickers).
Unfortunately, construction work around City Hall and on JFK Plaza obscures some other pieces, such as Robert Engman's lovely 1974 bronze swirl, the Triune (off 15th Street, on South Penn Square), and Jacques Lipchitz's heroic inverted pyramid of bodies, Government of the People, also bronze, which was installed on JFK Boulevard in front of the Municipal Services Building in 1976 after 11 years in the making. Still on the north side, along Broad Street off JFK Boulevard, it turns out that the man so busily working a printing press is a young Benjamin Franklin - a change from the stereotype of the rotund man in granny glasses.
Don't forget to look up and pay homage to William Penn atop City Hall (by Alexander Milne Calder, father of the Swann Fountain sculptor). He was cast in bronze in 1892 and is still gleaming from a recent cleaning.
THE ART MUSEUM. Save some money here. For once, don't go inside. Wait for a nice day, pack a picnic, and wander around the outside of the museum. The view
from the top of the steps, of course, is great - and so are the sculptures on the plaza surrounding the museum. We won't single any out because - for once - everything here is labeled. Just go and enjoy.
KELLY DRIVE. A schizoid experience - wonderful, because there are so many great pieces along it; frustrating, because there's hardly anywhere to park, and because some of the most intriguing sculptures aren't labeled.
Kelly Drive is a "when-in-Philadelphia" kind of place. As in, you might as well just do what the Philadelphians do, and walk, bike, jog or rollerblade along here. If you try to look while you drive, you'll end up in the Schuylkill. Parking is limited to the lot between the Art Museum and Boathouse Row, and then a very few, very tiny, lots along the drive. Don't say we didn't warn you.
At the western end of Boathouse Row is a man in chain mail who looks to be a Crusader but (a sign actually tells you this!) turns out to be Thorfinn Karlsefni, who settled in North America briefly around the year 1000. The Leif Ericson Society and the Scandinavian Crafts Club donated this bronze monument, made by Einar Jonsson around 1918, one of many in the city commemorating different ethnic groups.
Just down from him is John J. Boyle's Stone Age in America, a bronze American Indian woman holding one child, with another clutching at her skirts, her foot firmly planted on the head of a dying wolf. It was done in 1887.
One of the best-kept secrets along Kelly Drive is the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, which faces the river south of the Girard Avenue Bridge and is best seen by the scullers as they labor past.
Actually, it's a series of three terraces, whose heroic figures (such as one of immigrants and slaves breaking their bonds), installed in granite, limestone and bronze over a 23-year period, commemorate the nation's history. It's quiet and shady on the plazas, and even during the heat wave of July it was a cool, pleasant spot to linger.
OUT-OF-THE-WAY PLACES. Some of the best art is in some of the most public places, which makes it easy to combine a little culture with your everyday errands, or other sightseeing. Some places, though, aren't so easy to get to. Still, if you find yourself in these areas, here's what you should look for:
Behind Memorial Hall on Lansdowne Drive, heading back toward the Japanese House and nearly surrounded by trees, is J. Otto Schweizer's All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. Its name gives one clue to its age; another is the list of wars on its side. That list starts with the American Revolution and ends with the World War - the only World War that had been fought when the bronze-and-granite statue was erected in 1934.
Down in the far reaches of Southwest Philadelphia, almost near Delaware County, is Eastwick Farm Park. Here, a little square installed in 1983 and expanded two years later features painted aluminum-and-rubber sculptures of farm animals (by Rosalie Sherman) with built-in benches, catching the eye of people who drive past along 84th or Crane Streets.
Also in South Philly, of course, is A. Thomas Schomberg's Rocky. Hey, people like him. If you're one of them and haven't yet seen him, he's outside the Spectrum at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue, facing the Vet, where he's been since 1990, when he finally got booted off the steps of the Art Museum (where he originally - and quite temporarily - was installed in bronze in 1981) for good.
INDOORS. A couple of favorites. Walker Hancock's 1950 bronze installation, the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, honoring Pennsylvania Railroad employees who fought in World War II, inside 30th Street Station. Even with all the eye-catching renovations that have enhanced the station's grandeur, the angel holding the fallen soldier still inspires awe. There's always someone circling around her, head back, oblivious to the hustle-bustle of travelers.
And the seated Ben Franklin, James Earle Fraser's 1938 installation in the lobby of the Franklin Institute at 20th Street and the Parkway. Worth ducking inside for a second, even if you have no intention of touring the museum. Not only is the huge white seravezza marble Franklin majestic in its own right, it's one of the few decent locations granted to sculptures of one of Philadelphia's favorite father figures.
There's a glitzy metal depiction of Franklin (Big Ben at Franklin Town, a 1992 collaboration by Tom Miles and Alex Generalis) over the Vine Street Expressway at 17th Street, surrounded by zingy lightning bolts, that's fun for motorists who are stuck in rush-hour traffic. But it's right on the sidewalk, on a fairly busy street, and there's nothing to tempt the pedestrian to linger.
But it's still better than what should be one of the city's finer monuments. Instead, because of its location, this one gets our vote for:
WORST. The lightning bolt at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge. What were they thinking? The lesser of the two problems with Bolt of Lightning . . . A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin is that, from certain angles, it's hard to tell what it is. Look at it from the city side, and it's immediately obvious that it's a bolt perched atop a key, obviously commemorating the legend about Franklin's flying his kite in a thunderstorm to experiment with electricity. For travelers coming into the city from New Jersey, the angle makes it hard to see the key, and thus figure out what the heck that odd shape is supposed to be.
The stainless steel sculpture (conceived by Isamu Noguchi in 1933, commissioned in 1979 after the Fairmount Park Art Association trustees saw a reproduction of the original at an Art Museum retrospective, and installed in 1984) gets its very own concrete plaza - a grand one, too, with curving steps and a nice fancy wall. But that plaza is surrounded by several lanes of traffic, most of it commuters intent on getting home or to work - and not likely to be sympathetic to art lovers who want to wander across to the plaza.
There's a park across the street that should provide a good vantage point, but it's also a hangout for a large number of homeless people and not the most comfortable place to while away the time.
Having vented our spleen over this, we'll back off. The fact remains that in Philadelphia, public art is a treasure, a free one at that, and worth sampling.