Perhaps even more disturbing to local museum and art officials is the belief that removal of this work of art, which leaves a tattered hole at the very center of the city's cultural history and commercial core, could easily have been prevented.
But few knew what had happened until the piece suddenly turned up at a Chelsea gallery last summer in a well-publicized exhibition.
``I was certainly as shocked and amazed as anybody to find it had been removed and was in New York,'' said Anne d'Harnoncourt, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. ``I have to say that it never even occurred to me that it could be removed or moved. Never.''
When it was in Philadelphia, the Kelly piece was known simply as the Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture - a humdrum name, no question, but one that emphasized the locale and circumstance that brought the work into being and served as its home for four decades.
When the piece reemerged in the commercial art market last summer, it was redubbed the generic, peripatetic Sculpture for a Large Wall. It was scooped up for a reported $1 million by cosmetics scion and art patron Ronald S. Lauder and his wife, Jo Carole. Ronald Lauder is chairman of the Museum of Modern Art; Jo Carole Lauder is president of the Modern's international council.
The Lauders then gave the work to the museum.
Coming by coincidence at the time of the threatened sale of the Maxfield Parrish-Louis Comfort Tiffany glass mosaic Dream Garden, in the lobby of the Curtis Center, the Kelly removal and sale has heightened local concern over what many now see as an accelerated pillaging of the city's cultural identity.
Certainly the tale of how Lobby Sculpture came to leave Philadelphia speaks to the mercantile pressures on every particle of the urban landscape. It shows how even the most solid parts of city terrain are evanescent and in constant flux.
The story also suggests how such losses might be forestalled in the future.
In 1993, Conrail moved its offices out of the bus building and the whole structure was closed - ``mothballed,'' in the words of Joseph Coradino, executive vice president of the Rubin Organization, the real estate and development firm that owns the building. Windows were shuttered. Doors were barred. Cyclone fence went up around the site. The Rubin Organization waited for a new tenant.
On a Sunday afternoon late in 1995, New York art dealer Matthew Marks, who represents Ellsworth Kelly, came to Philadelphia to see the Constantin Brancusi show at the Art Museum. He also took the opportunity, at Kelly's urging, to check on the Lobby Sculpture.
Marks took a cab from the Museum to 17th and Market and, he said, was appalled at what he found.
``The area seemed kind of desolate and abandoned,'' Marks said in a telephone interview last week. ``The building was all boarded up. There was a fence around it, but you could see inside. The windows were broken. It looked abandoned. They were going to demolish it or something.''
When Marks returned to New York, he called Kelly.
``I said, `My God Ellsworth! I couldn't believe it!' '' Marks said. `` `This is the largest, most important work of Ellsworth Kelly, and whoever owns it doesn't get it!' ''
The piece was owned by the Rubin Organization.
Marks and Kelly grew alarmed.
``Whether the building was mothballed or abandoned, you just don't leave a 1957 Elsworth Kelly piece in a building without climate control,'' Marks said. ``It wasn't being treated well. I'm telling you, there were birds flying over it.''
Kelly could not be reached for comment, but his assistant, Jack Shear, said the artist was unhappy with the fate of the sculpture. In fact, he had never liked the location or the former owners. (One reason may be that several freestanding screens that Kelly designed for the defunct Post House Restaurant, which was once in the building, disappeared 20 years ago, before the Rubin Organization's involvement, and may have been destroyed.)
Unknown to Marks, d'Harnoncourt and city art officials also were checking on Lobby Sculpture in late 1995 and early 1996.
Margot Berg, public-art coordinator in the city's office of arts and culture, contacted the Rubin Organization and asked it to keep city officials informed about the state of the building and artwork. But because the Kelly sculpture was privately owned and on private property, the city had no authority to oversee its condition or disposition.
``There were discussions about the state of the work and how it might be kept in Philadelphia,'' said architect James Straw, head of the city's public- art advisory committee. ``It was the perfect time to discuss what should be done with the piece. The building was closed. The piece was inside. There was correspondence about it back in '96, but there was no group which was taking ownership of this issue in the public interest. There was no one in the public domain who could make sure the discussion went somewhere.''
Not surprisingly, then, the discussion of January-February 1996 did not go anywhere. In mid-1996, the Rubin Organization landed a tenant for the building, the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Architectural plans were drawn up that led Rubin executives to believe the Kelly work would not fit in the proposed new space.
``Obviously, the building wasn't abandoned, and the sculpture wasn't abandoned,'' said Coradino, the Rubin executive. ``We were interested in not destroying the damn thing because once a contractor gets in there, anything can happen.''
Coradino said that Sotheby's, the New York auction house, was contacted and appraised the Kelly work at $300,000. But Sotheby's cautioned that the sculpture ``would be valueless unless the sculptor authorized having it taken down,'' he said.
Enter Marks, Kelly's gallery representative.
Coradino said Marks ``called and said it was maybe valued at $300,000, `But not unless we authorize it.' He offered $100,000.''
Rubin officials agreed. Price was not a big issue, Coradino said, because the Morgan, Lewis deal was worth ``millions and millions.''
Marks, who would not discuss price or profit, has a different recollection. He said Rubin executives ignored him for a long time before finally agreeing to sell the piece.
``Our big concern was that this wouldn't get thrown away because no one realized what it was,'' Marks said. ``It was too important to be left in this building. . . . When Ellsworth Kelly saw it there behind that fence and locked away, it was very upsetting to him.''
During two weeks in late 1996, Kelly supervised the dismantling and packing of Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture. It reemerged from its wooden-and-bubble-wrap cocoon as Sculpture for a Large Wall and was exhibited at Marks' West 22d Street gallery in New York last summer, when it was bought by Lauder - whose Ronald S. Lauder Foundation is a key supporter of the World Monuments Fund's cultural-preservation efforts.
``I think that we lost [the Kelly] is a tragedy because of its loaded significance for the city and for the whole body of Kelly's work,'' said Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association. ``This was the first purely abstract public art in the city. It was Kelly's first use of metal. It was his first time working in a foundry. It is a trailblazer of great importance. Moving it from its location is truly a loss, because it will never have the same meaning at [the Modern]. It can't.''
In a prepared statement announcing the gift, Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the Modern's department of painting and sculpture, called Kelly's work ``a remarkable primary alphabet of his abstract forms of the next decades.''
As a final irony, Coradino said that as architectural plans advanced, it became apparent that Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture could have been preserved in place.
``In hindsight, the sculpture probably could have been used somewhere in the Morgan, Lewis lobby,'' he said. ``But at the time, we didn't realize that.''
Loss of so significant a work by one of the acknowledged masters of American modernism has focused attention on creating some kind of public-art registry, an idea that first surfaced at the time of the controversy over the Parrish-Tiffany mural in the Curtis Center. Such a registry would constitute an aesthetic ``endangered species'' list that might include publicly and privately owned pieces whose loss would dramatically disrupt the ecology of the cityscape.
(When controversy erupted over the impending sale of the Parrish-Tiffany mural, the city invoked an obscure section of the historic-preservation ordinance that allowed for designation and protection of so-called historic objects. Preliminary hearings on that designation are now scheduled for Nov. 20.)
Straw, of the public-art committee, notes that if it had been known the Kelly was being sold - particularly for such a low price - money certainly could have been found to buy and preserve it. Beyond that, if the sale had been slowed and the attention of the architects focused on preservation, the piece could well have remained in situ.
But no one was paying close attention.
``What's missing here is the public-advocacy component - a foundation for art that would function like the Foundation for Architecture,'' Straw said.
Inventories of public art have been taken by the Fairmount Park Art Association, by the city, by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, and by various quasi-public agencies, Straw said.
But there is no group empowered to monitor those works and draw public attention to them when threats arise.
``We have some of the pieces, but not the whole puzzle,'' Straw said.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Modern said she was unaware that the loss of the Kelly had created controversy in Philadelphia, whose citizens, she said, could take comfort that ``New York is not very far away.''